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From Dust to Ice   Leave a comment

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It should come as no surprise from the title of Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites, that death plays a major role since it overshadows the entire plot. It is also obvious from the onset who will die and why. What is less clear is the unexpected empathy that develops for the condemned.

Kent creates an unlikely protagonist in Agnes Magnusdottir, charged with the brutal murder of her former lover. While awaiting her execution, Agnes is sent to live with a farmer’s family apprehensive of have a murderess in their home. Like the harsh, cold Icelandic setting in which the story occurs, warmth toward to Agnes is slow to kindle.

The beauty of Kent’s writing lies in her ability to develop an emotional response in readers in much the same way the host family members relinquish their reluctance, revulsion and fear of having Agnes in their midst. The transformation is hard won.

Told in part from Agnes’s perspective, a few official letters, and an omniscient narrator, each character is skillfully portrayed through personality quirks, physical descriptions, and overt reactions. It’s easy to envision the pompous, narrow-minded District Commissioner who inflicts his will. Kent is equally successful in developing Toti, the young assistant reverend Agnes has requested as her spiritual advisor. This uncertain young man, and his faith, evolves as Agnes grows more comfortable sharing details of her life.

The novel, a fictional account of actual events, demonstrates hardened hearts can be softened by honesty, profound interaction, and a good storyteller.

Burial Rites
Four-and-half Bookmarks
Little, Brown and Company, 2013
322 pages

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