So I've been sitting on this review for what feels like forever, and although my thoughts on it are still not quite fully-fledged, I figure it's finally time to send this review out into the world so I can stop thinking about it and move on with my life.
If, like me, you saw a lot of 2014 wrap-up blog posts or YouTube videos at the start of this year, you may well have spotted Burial Rites by Hannah Kent among lots of people's favourites. That was the case for me, and it left me itching to find out more about what was making this book so popular. So I asked my brother to get if for me for Christmas, and started reading it as soon as I got the chance! (I actually read this in January... Now you see how behind I am with my reviews! Woops.)
This book centres around that last person to receive the death penalty in Iceland, a woman named Agnes Magnusdottir who was convicted of murder. The story follows her being taken to stay with a rural farming family as she awaits her execution. One of the absolute best aspects of the story for me was how well it had all been researched, yet somehow none of the details felt shoe-horned in. There was a very authentic feel to all the descriptions of the family's daily life and their farm, etc. I also loved the fleeting glances into the lives of the family and of the priest who comes to help Agnes prepare for death; these were glimpses into the mother of the family's sickness and her slow change of heart, the relationship between the two daughters, and the mind of the young priest Tóti, which did necessarily paint a full picture or give any closure on any of their stories.
There was a certain atmosphere of mystery surrounding the story of the murder, and the details were released agonisingly slowly. For the most part, the story succeeded in holding my interest, and I was left wondering if Agnes really had committed the murder or not. Kent did a wonderful job of creating just the right amount of moral ambiguity, and that mingled with the general haunting atmosphere of the Icelandic landscape made for some quite tense and thrilling moments.
But there were also points where I found myself getting annoyed at the writing style. Most of the descriptions were, in my opinion, much too florid and wordy, and should have been subjected to the editor's red pen. At times, the narrative switched to first person and sometimes to the present tense, which, for me, just felt quite jarring (particularly the tense-switch), and didn't add anything to the story. I'm disappointed to have found this narrative 'device' in quite a few books lately (I use inverted commas because I believe it is only rarely used to any significant effect). Maybe some people like it, but it just gets on my nerves!
To sum up, my thoughts on this book are a little mixed. I certainly enjoyed it for the most part, and was very impressed by some aspects. But somehow I couldn't help feeling just a teensy bit disappointed. I think it was probably the hype that did it (not entirely the book's fault!), but I was really expecting Great Things from this book, and unfortunately they just didn't quite materialise. Overall, though, it's definitely worth a read, particularly if you have no special aversion to gratuitous tense-switching and over-indulgent description, because those really were my only quibbles with the book. Apart from those, it was a quietly confident success in my eyes.