After a storm has killed off all the island’s men, two women in a 1600s Norwegian coastal village struggle to survive against both natural forces and the men who have been sent to rid the community of alleged witchcraft.
Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Bergensdatter 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 Northern 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 pushed together and 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 1620 witch trials, THE MERCIES is a feminist story of love, evil, and obsession, set at the edge of civilization.
Expected publication date: February 2020
*I received a kindle edition of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review*
I don’t even know where to begin with this review but let me just preface it with: I absolutely LOVED this novel. I haven’t read any of Kiran Millwood Hargraves other novels so I was looking forward to seeing what her writing style was like after such an intriguing synopsis. I know a little about the witch trials of the early 17th century so I had some background information, but I definitely learned a lot more after reading.
The novel is told through the perspective of two young women; Maren and Ursa. Maren and her fellow villagers have suffered the terrible loss of all the men in their village – fathers, husbands and brothers, all gone due to a massive storm. What follows after is their desperate bid for survival and we read how their lives change as they gain independence and a sense of freedom, despite being haunted by their grief. With the absence of the men, it is up to Maren and the other women to provide for themselves and go out to fish for example, which is deemed socially unacceptable.
Ursa is the daughter of a merchant, a young woman who has lived a rather privileged life in relative comfort despite the crippling loss of her mother many years ago. She lives in the humdrum routine of caring for her sister Agnette who is ill and being cared for by a kind servant, Siv. After a series of bad investments, her father drowns his sorrows in alcohol and life carries on so until one day Absalom Cornet comes to his door. He is searching for a bride and Ursa is presented to him after which their wedding is quickly arranged and they are off to Vardø to bring order to the village.
I truly enjoyed the perspectives of both Maren and Ursa and each chapter worked so well to highlight the differences between the two women but also that they’re the same in the ways that really count. The relationship that develops between the two is honestly some of the most sensitive and beautiful writing I’ve had the pleasure to read. Their relationship brings a necessary lightness and vibrancy to the novel, in the midst of all the fear and suspicion which is rife throughout the book. It’s a small beacon of hope in the novel which is devoid of much goodness.
I feel like the novel will draw a variety of strong emotions, the chief one being anger and disbelief at the actions of Absalom and other characters who will persecute anyone who doesn’t fit into their restrictive ideals of womanhood. I detested Absalom from the get go and he got progressively worse as the story went on, he’s so narrow minded and fanatical that he was easy to dislike and this makes his arc and end in the novel all the more satisfying. It was also interesting and sad to read as the women of Vardø turn on each other, over petty jealousies and disagreements and I feel like Hargrave really exposes and explores the darker side of human nature here.
I would also like to note that Hargrave touches upon the suppression of indigenous people within the novel and how rich culture and traditions were being stamped out by European and British powers. In particular the novel features the indigenous Sámi people, who are native to northern Norway and Finland. We get to understand their plight through the character of Diina, Marens sister in law. Diina is a young Sámi woman who marries outside of her own, choosing to marry Erik (Marens brother) as they fall in love. While she is never fully accepted into the village because of her heritage, Diina never lets go of her beliefs and I really admired her conviction and bravery.
Overall, I really enjoyed The Mercies and how atmospheric and powerful it is. It says a lot about the position of women in a very dark period of history and the lessons we can learn from these characters who mirror the tragic reality, their strength, courage and determination leaps off the page and will stay with readers long after they turn the last page.
Until next time,