The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 11 February 2020
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.
I received an e-ARC from the author/publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I was really excited when I heard about The Mercies last year, and I was fortunate enough to receive an eARC from the publisher via Netgalley. I wavered a little when trying to decide what to rate it though. On one hand, I think it is an objectively good book. On the other, I didn’t enjoy it very much.
The two things that struck me the most were the world building and the writing. Millwood-Hargrave did a masterful job at transporting me to 17th century Vardø. It felt like I was completely immersed in the lives of the women who lived there. This was both a good thing, and a bad thing. Good, because it takes talent to achieve that. Bad, because I was equal parts bored with the minutiae of every day life, and anxious because of the oppressive atmosphere.
That’s another thing that was done really well. The atmosphere. Since this is a very character driven novel, told alternatively from Maren and Ursa’s perspectives, we get to see events as they unfold through the eyes of two characters who are very aware of the dangers, even if they don’t necessarily know what the exact outcome will be. As the fear, and bigotry amps up, and the accusations start flying, the tension is palpable.
The pacing throughout is quite measured. Then the climax crescendos very quickly, very close to the end, and then boom! The book is over. This seems to be a sort of signature for Millwood-Hargrave, because I had the same feeling of ‘that’s it?’ at the end of The Deathless Girls and The Girl of Ink and Stars.
Speaking of the end, I found it to be a bit unbelievable. I tried to do some of my own research to corroborate the story that was told, but my success was limited. This is why I don’t read a lot of historical fiction. I want everything to be factual, and to have references, and primary sources. Which is what non-fiction is.
In the end, I realised that this is an intensely psychological novel. There’s a plot, to be sure, but it is ultimately a meditation on womens’ survival, in so many different senses of the word. It is less concerned with historical accuracy, and more concerned with exploring the different ways women overcome.
After the storm takes the lives of every able-bodied adult male in their village, the women cling to each other and eke out a life on their own. They continue to do what is necessary to survive, even while they grieve. They cling to their faith and beliefs, in both Christianity and older traditions, to give them strength. Some choose to wield their faith like a weapon, lashing out at others for their pain and loss.
Others choose more practical outlets. Kirsten is most representative of all of these things- she chooses to wear trousers, she takes on a leadership role, she convinces the women to go out fishing, and she slaughters animals for the meat and hides. All socially acceptable – if you are a man.
Even Ursa, who is from the city of Bergen, is a survivor. She travels far from home, with a man she doesn’t know but to whom she is wed. She survives the journey, and she survives the realities of being a wife, with all that entails.
There are some pretty graphic scenes in this book- spousal rape, domestic violence, murder, violence- so that’s something to be aware of going in.
While I didn’t really enjoy The Mercies per se, I thought it was a compelling read. I found it hard to put down, even when I didn’t like what I was reading. I think it was well written, and it’s has some really thought-provoking themes.