Book Review: Burial Rites

A dark, deep tale of love and loss by Hannah Kent

Historical fiction isn’t typically one of my go-to genres, but I heard about Burial Rites during a recent writing festival and I was intrigued, so thought I’d give it a go and I’m definitely glad I did.

Overall I loved this book, and it’s really stuck with me since reading it. I have to admit I found it slow to get into it. There’s a lot of scene setting upfront, and the book starts in the middle of the story, so I found it hard to connect with the characters to begin with. But I persisted, and absolutely loved it by the end.

Being literary, historical fiction, it is quite a slow burn. If you’re looking for that fast-paced, page turning novel, this probably isn’t it. But if you’re looking for a deep, heart-wrenching character study, that explores all the levels of what it means to be human, then definitely give it a read. Personally the books I love most are always those that have great characters, and that’s true regardless of genre. In Burial Rites, the characters are so well depicted, and given ample opportunity to evolve and share their stories, and by the time the climax rolls around, it’s hard to say goodbye to them all.

In terms of the plot, I won’t say too much as I don’t want to spoil anything. But it centres on a young woman who is due to be executed by hanging, having been convicted of murder. The story walks you through how it all came to be. And although it’s all her story, it’s told from various different viewpoints – hers, the clergyman assigned to save her soul before her death, as well as correspondence between court officials. I found the multiple points of view to be very effective, as it offered interesting perspectives on how the actions of one person can be judged so differently depending on your own beliefs and context. The inclusion of historical facts was also a powerful tool to bring the story to life, and really absorb you into the whole experience.

At first I found the slow pace challenging, but over time I cam to really appreciate the gradual drip feed of the story. I though it was really well done and kept the suspense high. The only thing that did trip me up, was the character names. As it’s set in Iceland, many of the names were unfamiliar, so I struggled a bit to keep on top of who was who. But I willingly confess that’s a common problem for me reading books set in different countries, so not a slight on the book itself.

Ultimately I’d say Burial Rites is a haunting book that depicts both the best and worst that humanity has to offer, and if you’re up for a beautifully written deep, dark, yet also oddly uplifting read, I’d highly recommend it.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is available at Amazon, Waterstones, and all good book retailers. 

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