Blurb from Goodreads
Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Magnusdatter stands on the craggy coast, watching the sea break into a sudden and reckless storm. Forty fishermen, including her brother and father, are drowned and left broken on the rocks below. With the menfolk wiped out, the women of the tiny Arctic town of Vardø must fend for themselves.
Three years later, a sinister figure arrives. Absalom Cornet comes from Scotland, where he burned witches in the northern isles. He brings with him his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who is both heady with her husband’s authority and terrified by it. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa sees something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God, and flooded with a mighty evil.
As Maren and Ursa are drawn to one another in ways that surprise them both, the island begins to close in on them, with Absalom’s iron rule threatening Vardø’s very existence.
Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1621 witch trials, The Mercies is a story of love, evil, and obsession, set at the edge of civilisation.
‘The Mercies’ is Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first adult fiction novel having previously written both middle grade and YA novels. I had previously read her book ‘The Island at the End of Everything’ and while I admired her writing in that I was not wholly convinced as the narrative felt too simplistic; a finding I put down to the age category for which the book was primarily written for.
However, my experience with ‘The Mercies’ could not be more different. I adored this book. The story, the characters, the pacing, the emotion… Simply fantastic!
The book is inspired by real events and traces the events that unfolded in a small community in Norway in and after 1617 and focuses on how the people of Vardø dealt with the aftermath of a terrible storm that claimed the lives of forty fishermen; practically the entire community’s male population.
Primarily, the novel follows the stories of two young women, Maren and Ursa.
Maren is originally from Vardø and has lost both her father and brother to the storm and the man to whom she was betrothed. The loss of her menfolk forced Maren to move outside the expected role of a woman in those times and particularly along with her friend Kirsten had to redraw the lines of what women could and could not do (e.g. take on a male role such as going out to sea fishing to provide for the community).
Meanwhile in another part of Norway, Ursa is a young woman caring for her poorly sister when her father tells her that she is to be married to a man named Absalom Cornet. Together with her new husband, Ursa moves to the community of Vardø where Absalom has been granted the role of commissioner and is tasked with bringing religious order and righteousness to this community.
And what follows is a story of mistrust, fear, propaganda and bigotry as it becomes apparent that Absalom is a man keen to accuse anyone that doesn’t follow his zealous beliefs a witch or somehow involved in evilness and witchcraft.
This was such an incredibly interesting book to read.
From the opening page I was immediately hooked. The atmosphere that Millwood Hargrave creates in this novel is palpable. There is such a delicious air of tension and an almost eerie ethereal quality to the prose. When required the prose is perfectly spartan to illustrate the bleakness of the Norwegian climate and then at times it can become so wonderfully rich and deep when describing the characters’ emotions and motivations.
And the main characters of Maren and Ursa are truly beautifully written… They feel so alive, so vital amidst this bleak terrain. And I really did just fall in love with them both and their relationship with each other.
This book is so wonderfully subtle at times that it gives the story and the characters the perfect chance to really blossom as the pages go by.
And once the climax of the major storylines are reached it’s so painfully heartbreaking that I challenge anyone not to be deeply moved by the story of these two women and the women of Vardø that were so callously accused of witchcraft for simply being independent, free thinkers and/or from an indigenous community.
This is a wonderfully written historical fiction that shines a spotlight on a less well known era of witch trials. It gives such voice and agency to female characters and makes this time period and these characters truly feel alive and thusly, I am rating this four and a half stars. (Rounded to five)
An e-copy of this book was kindly provided to me by the publisher, Picador, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review