The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
First Publication Date: 11 February 2020
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 stranger arrives on their shore. 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.
The Mercies is a bleak, heartbreaking and infinitely interesting story – I devoured it in two days. It took me a few chapters to warm to the story, as I am not attracted to bleak historical fiction as a rule, but by the ending I was so enthralled I had a hard time going back to the real world afterwards. It is a very atmospheric read, perfect for immersing yourself and it’s a relatively short book, beautifully told in a straightforward way that I really enjoyed.
After the menfolk of the small town of Vardø die, the women are left bereft and stricken by grief. They must learn to survive and thrive by themselves, and the dangerous rules they must break to do that cause a divide between the Church women and the women who follow Kirsten, their pants-wearing, fearless leader. They learn to fish, to tend the fields, to survive despite their pain. However, their divide grows larger and animosity turns into hatred and fear. The author brings these feelings vividly to the page, and it reminded me a bit of reading Milkman by Anna Burns, which also had this oppressive feeling of danger and fear throughout the story, keeping the reader on their toes.
I really liked the relationship between the main characters, the kindness of Maren and loyalness of Ursa, how they admired each other and enjoyed being with each other, their friendship developing into something more. It was truly wonderful to read their interactions – it distracted me for a moment from the danger looming over them.
I cannot say much about the ending without spoiling it, so I will keep it brief: it broke my heart. The realistic and painful depiction of people’s hatred for “witches” and what happened to those accused (mostly women), the intolerance for the Sámi people and Diinna’s (understandable, if saddening) wariness of Maren. I had to search a bit for the true events that this story is based on: the storm in 1617 that did in fact leave the women in Vardø alone, the witch trials that took place there three years later. It is horrific to imagine such a thing happening, but not at all that far away from the ignorance that is prevalent these days, too.
An incredible book! Highly recommend if you would like to read a story about the witch trials in Norway.