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Adept, stark retelling of grisly Icelandic scene

 burial rites by Hannah Kent (322 pages, $26)

burial rites by Hannah Kent (322 pages, $26)

At the heart of Hannah Kent’s bleak and beautiful debut novel is a famous Icelandic crime: In March 1828, three people allegedly murdered two farmers and set fire to their home. All three were caught and condemned to death.

Kent begins the story when Agnes, one of the convicted murderers, is moved to the home of District Officer Jon Jonsson to await execution. Jon lives up north in the shadow of the Vatnsdalsfjall range, with his doughty, no-nonsense wife, Margret, and their two young daughters. Anxious about her impending death, Agnes requests the ministrations of a spiritual adviser, a young assistant reverend named Toti, who has no idea why the condemned woman would ask for him by name.

Even in 19th-century rural Iceland, politics is politics: Blondal is determined to make an example of Agnes. He doesn’t care about the restorative effect that the Korns valley is having on Agnes, who arrived at Margret’s house bitter and hopeless. “Those who are not being dragged to their deaths,” Agnes says, “cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it,” but soon she comes to relish life again. As her relationship with Margret deepens, readers increasingly dread the certainty of what’s coming. By the time this wondrously adept novel reaches its conclusion, those readers will share Margret’s despairing realization: “Nothing is simple.”

The Washington Post

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