‘They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a grey wreath of smoke. I will vanish into the air and the night. They will blow us all out, one by one, until it is only their own light by which they see themselves. Where will I be then?’

In 1820s Northern Iceland, a woman is condemned to death for murdering her lover. There are no prisons to hold her, so she is sent to live on a farm with the farmer’s wife and daughters while she awaits her sentence. A priest is tasked with absolving her, but all is not as it seems.

Burial Rites has been widely praised by critics since its release two years ago, being shortlisted both for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Guardian First Book Award. When I started reading it, I was afraid it was going to be one of those books that is nominated for awards but turns out to be poor reading. Thankfully, I was wrong.

Based partly on a true story, Kent does a masterful job of bringing the bleak but beautiful landscape of Iceland alive on the page. The roiling grey sea, the vicious snowstorms, the harsh way of life in the winter dark… All of it sucks you into the world of the novel so that, when you look up and find yourself at home, you’re almost surprised.

The main character, Agnes, is forced into a difficult situation that you can’t help but find yourself empathising with, even if – initially, anyway – you’re not particularly empathetic with Agnes herself. She is forced to live with a strange family who know her to be a murderer and who believe they can’t take their eyes off her for a second or leave her in possession of any sharp objects. The tension this creates – together with the constant reminders of Agnes’s imminent death – is sure to grip you and keep you reading way past your bedtime.

Kent brilliantly creates questions around the supposed truth. Everyone Agnes comes into contact with believes her to be a cold-blooded killer, a madwoman who will seize any chance to cut your throat. By juxtaposing Agnes’s own voice with the perspectives of those around her, Kent makes the reader wonder just who is telling the truth. Can anyone be trusted? And what really happened the night Agnes’s lover died?

Although I thoroughly enjoyed this book, it wasn’t without its faults. Agnes’s conversations with the priest aren’t particularly realistic and are clearly just a means of exposition. The historical documents inserted at the beginning of each chapter seem a little unnecessary, and I don’t think the book would have lost anything if Kent had cut them out. The Icelandic names also take some getting used to, but thankfully by the end you don’t really notice them anymore.

Burial Rites is a stark, bleak novel, showcasing Kent’s vivid and beautiful writing talent. One quote in particular sticks with me: ‘We fell into the cracks between what we said and what we meant.’ Her obviously extensive historical research never once gets in the way of her telling of the story. Likewise Kent’s comments on the limited options offered to a woman in the nineteenth century add an extra dimension to Agnes’s journey without sounding like a history lesson.

It isn’t a book for those who like their stories to be full of action; it’s quiet and character-driven, and not too much actually happens. But if you want a story with interesting characters, and watching the fascinating ways in which their relationships change – with a haunting ending to boot – I would highly recommend this book. I will eagerly await more from this author.

Burial Rites is published by Picador.