As if the subject matter wasn't fascinating enough - based on the true story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland - Hannah Kent's true talent in her novel Burial Rites lies in evoking time and place. Set in the desolate far north of Iceland in 1829, what *really* happened to accused murderess Agnes Magnusdottir on the night her employer/lover was killed and then burned in his home is slowly revealed over the course of the novel. And of course the novel is about Agnes herself - her origins, her upbringing, her life.
The novel masterfully switches between past and present day, where Agnes is being held in a local family's home awaiting execution. She is not welcome there. Throughout the months it takes for the execution details to become finalized, we learn just as much about Agnes through the eyes of this family as we do from the trips to the past.
It isn't until you finish reading the novel and think about these details that you realize what made this such an amazing novel: it was the proficiency with which Kent writes. Her nearly imperceptible transitions between third and first person points of view are seamless and perfectly placed, not clunky or obvious as in so many many other novels. Her use of dialog is very deliberate and no character is ever speaking just to take up word space: every sentence has a purpose.
And best of all...her evocation of time and place. I was nearly speechless over this. A reader can almost always get an idea of setting when reading a novel, but rarely are you *transported* to that setting. Kent transports you. You can just about feel the cold, smell the smoke from the fires...it is that well-done, but without taking pages and pages to do so.
What more can I say, but read this. I rarely go with "the herd" when it comes to popular books, but this one truly deserves each of it's high ratings.