The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Published by PanMacmillan
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I received a copy from the publisher via NetGalley.
On Christmas Eve, 1617, the sea around the remote Norwegian island of Vardø is thrown into a reckless storm. As Maren Magnusdatter watches, forty fishermen, including her father and brother, are lost to the waves, the menfolk of Vardø wiped out in an instant.
Now the women must fend for themselves.
Eighteen months later, a sinister figure arrives. Summoned from Scotland to take control of a place at the edge of the civilized world, Absalom Cornet knows what he needs to do to bring the women of Vardø to heel. With him travels his young wife, Ursa. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa finds something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God and flooded with a mighty and terrible evil, one he must root out at all costs.
Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1621 witch trials, Kiran Millwood Hargrave's The Mercies is a story about how suspicion can twist its way through a community, and a love that may prove as dangerous as it is powerful.
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave is a compelling work of historical fiction. I was immediately drawn to this book by the gorgeous front cover. The description promised a fascinating and gripping read and I was not disappointed.
That the story is based around real historical events is of particular interest. My knowledge of Norweigan history is limited to Norse mythology (from a very English perspective). I had some idea of how the Sami have been treated but did not know much more. I’d never heard of the Vardø storm and wasn’t aware witch trials occurred in Norway (although I probably should have guessed). The Mercies did a really good job of bringing this period to life; I was absolutely transported to 17th century Norway. Both Vardø and Bergen felt very real. I have recently visited Bergen so was able to visualise, but the sense of place for both cities was very strong for me as a reader.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave is remarkably skilled in descriptive narrative and clearly did meticulous research for the book. From the first page, the reader is sucked into a richly detailed story compassing the vast Norwegian landscape to the minutiae of housekeeping. The details do not burden the narrative, rather they support the plot to develop a story with an extraordinary atmosphere.
This atmosphere is quite heavy, oppressive even, drawing strongly on the Norwegian landscape and the brutally beautiful power of the sea. The women living in the isolation of Vardø, and their reliance on the environment highlights the power of the men who arrive seeking to tame both them and the place they live.
The details contribute to the sense of oppression as they are built into the story, as well as cultivating a deep sense of the characters. The story is told from the perspectives of Maren and Ursa, but the depth of characterisation extends to the rest of the characters. The women of the village are a rich tapestry of characters. Each is grappling with abrupt changes, the challenges of survival and incredible grief; dealing with this in different, often damaging ways. My favourite character was Kirsten. Her strength and practical attitude were very appealing, and I liked her friendship with Maren. The relationship between Maren and Ursa was integrated into the story effectively, particularly how it built from their friendship, and though the conclusion of the story was somewhat unexpected, I thought it worked really well.
There were a lot of layers to the story. Careful to avoid spoilers, I will simply add that it uses a historical moment to explore friendship, love, community and society, and power, particularly patriarchal power. Overall, The Mercies is a beautifully written story with haunting settings and complex characters.
About the author
Kiran Millwood Hargrave (b. 1990) is an award-winning poet, playwright, and novelist. Her bestselling works for children include The Girl of Ink & Stars, and have won numerous awards including the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, the British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year, and the Blackwell Children’s Book of the Year. The Mercies is her first novel for adults. Kiran lives by the river in Oxford, with her husband, artist Tom de Freston, and their rescue cat, Luna.