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Book Review

‘Burial Rites’ digs deep into the core of capital punishment law


Book burial ritesCourtesy of Beaverdale Books

Review by Shirley Shiffler



336 pp.

“Burial Rites” is a beautifully written, if sometimes necessarily gory, account of the last case of capital punishment carried out in Iceland. In 1828, Agnes Magnusdottir is convicted of the horrific murder of two young men. She is sentenced to death by beheading. However, since Iceland is under Denmark’s rule, the sentence cannot be carried out until the case has gone through the Supreme Court in Copenhagen and been approved by the king.

Rather than spending these last months in prison, the authorities send her to live with a farm family. The belief is that the prisoner will be inspired to repent by living among upright Christians, who in turn will benefit from the work the prisoner will do as they wait for the final word from Denmark. She is also assigned to a young preacher who is to prepare her to meet her maker, and through the long Icelandic winter nights, she tells him her story.

The facts are meticulously researched, and the voice author Hannah Kent gives to Agnes is captivating. When Agnes arrives at the farm, she is filthy and smells like an animal, or worse. The family members are at first horrified by the fact that they must include her in their home, but the mother quickly determines not to treat her like a beast. Agnes proves to be a hard worker with a pleasant way about her, and it is easy to sympathize, as what is seemingly a very black-and-white crime turns to fuzzy shades of grey. This work of historical fiction left me a little shocked and saddened when the end came. CV                 

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