Burial Rites is a haunting historical fiction exploring the last months of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person beheaded by the state in 1830. Convicted because of her involvement in murder and arson, she’s sentenced to spend the rest of her days with a family who is horrified at the prospect of sheltering a murderess under their roof. At first, only Toti, a local priest that Agnes chose to prepare her for the afterlife, would have anything to do with her but as those around warm up to her, they come to realize that not all is as it appears to be.
I’m really glad I picked up this book. It’s haunting, foreboding, and as you’re reading you can feel the weight of everything that’s happening. The setting of a dark and harsh rural Icelandic landscape was so visually expressed, I could feel the sting of the cold.
One of the themes of this book explores the nature of gossip and how it does much to influence how other’s perceive characters. How someone can be ostracized by what is simply said about them. The setting is similar to a big small town. Everyone knows everybody and one public transgression of societal norms can brand someone for life.
One of the things I loved about this book is how narratives can be twisted. Even as Agnes was giving her account, she commented how her words were taken from her. Used, abused, and turned around to reflect a reality that is ascribed to her.
I remained quiet. I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold what has not yet been stolen from me.
Due to this, she finds herself cold. She doesn’t try to protest the ways people perceive her finding some solace in the quiet and manual labor.
This theme is what kept me hooked into the book. I loved how the story does the work of bringing to life this historical character. It most sharply does this by giving her a first person voice in contrast to the third person narrative. The reader is privy to the mental throes she goes through as she thinks on her past, her present, and the future that ebbs shorter with each passing day.
But I still didn’t love the book.
When I give a book a four-star rating, I try to really question what, if anything, prevents me from loving it. Oftentimes, this is hard to articulate. In this book’s case, it was the ending.
The ending is a foregone conclusion. Agnes Magnusdottir is executed. This historical record tells us this and since historical fiction draws heavily from that, it has to stick to it. This isn’t what I had a problem with. The central question of the narrative is the “how” and “why” to the murders in Illusgastidir. It hangs over most of the cast and does a lot to influence what the audience takes away from Agnes’ character. But I felt neither of these things had an impact on the course of events. It doesn’t necessarily have to but it says something that these details were thrown in as a plot dump near the very end.
This one little issue didn’t detract to the whole experience, however. More of the point of the story was to give a voice to a woman didn’t get much of one during her actual time. In this, the story is really successful and I recommend it highly on this alone.