Secular Shelf Life with Sarah Allen: Burial Rites (book review)

BURIAL RITESThe Need For Grace
By Hannah Kent
Picador. 378 pages. £12.99
ISBN 978 1 447 233 169

Scandinavian noir is fashionable at the moment.

From TV detective series to crime novels, there seems to be a considerable appetite for the seemingly brutal and brooding lives of our near neighbours. Although this book is set in Iceland in the first half of the 19th century, it falls into the same category. Two maids and a farm labourer have been sentenced to death for the violent murder of their employer. As there is no prison on Iceland, they are sent to board with farming families while they wait for execution. Burial Rites narrates the stay of Agnes Magnussdottir, the oldest of the convicted, as she returns to the valley where she spent her childhood.

Agnes’s story is told from her own viewpoint as well as through the eyes of the priest sent to lead her to repentance and by an omniscient narrator. In the descriptions of place and farm life the detail is sparse but vivid. The rhythm of the scythes at harvest and the making of blood sausage as the winter darkness approaches, the smells of the turf-roofed communal sleeping and sitting room of the farms are all portrayed evocatively. This description comes enmeshed with the narration of Agnes’s story as she confides in the priest. The reader’s sympathies are with Agnes as she divulges how she has suffered. But at the same time she is made an almost mythic figure; her looks, intelligence and secrecy set her apart from other women and cause gossip and superstitions to swirl around her.

Did Agnes’s upbringing push her into a dangerous place? Is Agnes guilty? Does she need forgiveness, or punishment, or both? How does the sin of one taint another? In a world saturated with Lutheranism, but also affected by lingering superstitions, the characters all grapple with these questions. As the narrative progresses, the presentation of Agnes becomes more ambiguous. This is a first novel with some writing that seems pretentious, but it remains an engrossing and thoughtful book. Read it and discuss it. The need for grace, and its beauty, are to be found throughout.

Sarah Allen is a secondary school English teacher, and is currently involved in evangelism and women’s work at Hope Church, Huddersfield.


This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057