Little Brown, $26.00, 322 pages, ISBN 978-0-316-24391-9
This week’s book review is a debut novel by an Australian author of great talent and outstanding promise; an author we’ll be paying attention to for a long, long time. Her novel is titled Burial Rites and the author’s name is Hannah Kent. She’s a graduate student who’s finishing her PhD at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, and she’s written one of the most meticulously well-researched and beautiful works of historical fiction I have read in quite some time. It takes place in 1829 on a remote farm in northern Iceland and tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a woman convicted of murdering two men and burning their bodies in order to conceal the crime. As her case slowly works its way through the judicial bureaucracy; in order to save money . . . and because they have no proper confinement facilities . . . the District Commissioner directs that Agnes be housed at the farm of another local official, District Officer Jon Jonsson. His wife Margrit is horrified, and afraid for herself, her two daughters and their servants and farmhands. She’s also worried, about their family’s reputation. What will the neighbor think of them, associating with a convicted criminal—and a murderer at that. Shunned, demeaned and abused at first, Agnes begins gaining the respect of the other women through her hard work and knowledge of healing and herbal medicine. As her story unfolds, Agnes is revealed as a complex, multi-dimensional character who might be deserving of another life. It is a dark and tragic tale of a tragic life, in a stark, cold land that’s brought to life through the talent of Hannah Kent. The reader will feel the cold and hunger, smell and see the closed in gloomy winter, while seeing the lush summer grasses come to life and watching the farm prosper or fail as the intricate relationships of the characters are revealed. The beautiful prose and complex story are artfully blended together by a talented and gifted writer and storyteller. Hannah Kent has made history come to life in her auspicious debut. Don’t miss this one. It’s a literary gem!