Set in Iceland in the early 1800s, Burial Rites tells the tale of a murderess sentenced to death. The novel is based on the true story of a woman named Agnes, a servant accused of brutally murdering her master, Natan. Without an adequate prison to hold Agnes the local government leaders order that she be sent to an isolated farm. The family owning the farm hosts Agnes at the will of the local government, but against their will. Tóti, a local priest, is called to visit the farm and serve as Agnes’s spiritual advisor. Like the family, Tóti is reluctant to take on this task.
Agnes slowly builds a relationship with the family and with Tóti. As she gains trust of Tóti and to the family, Agnes tells her story. Agnes tells of her impoverished childhood, her relationship with Natan, and finally, the crime for which she has been sentenced. Through Anges’s stories the novel becomes as much about empathy as it does about Agnes’s past.
With a strong, bleak setting and emotionally complex characters, this book is a great winter read. Burial Rites will be enjoyed by readers of Marilynn Robinson’s Lila and well-researched historical fiction.