The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Title: The Mercies
Author: Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Publisher: Pan Macmillan, Picador
Published Date: February 11th 2020
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Fiction, Adult, Historical, LGBTQIA+
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.
So, as usual, I had no idea that this was an actual thing that happened before I read the synopsis of the book and trust me, the fact that the witch trials were real just made me sadder.
The book starts right off the bat with the horrific storm that took the lives of almost all of the men of Vardo. It leaves behind the women who have to start working on their own to survive the winter and it is so vividly shown in the book. The desperation, the grief, the fear of everyone who lost someone. Then there’s the divide between the women as some of them slowly start to actually work and the rest of them are fearful of God not deeming it a womanly task and fearing the God’s wrath in return.
Still, the women still work and start to actually look after themselves without too much struggle when the word comes that Absalom Cornet is coming to their village to put it to rights. Absalom is a god-fearing man and absurdly strict about how things should be. He comes from Scotland and he already has a plan as to how to make the women of Vardo see sense. He’s also a ‘witch-finder’ which is not a well known fact around Vardo.
The main character, Maren, is one of the women from the village. She lost her father and her brother along with her betrothed to the storm and Absalom’s wife, Ursa, is the second main character. Where Maren is still trying to wrap her mind around the grief and loss and the politics of her village, Ursa comes from a genteel home and hasn’t had it easy either. She’s trapped in a loveless marriage with Absalom and doesn’t know what to do about it.
Coming from completely different places in their life as well as a societal place, Maren and Ursa find themselves comfortable in each other’s company and even though their haven is very limited in its strength, it’s nothing compared to the different kind of storm that Absalom is about to bring to the village.
It is written with such a vivid imagery that we can see the desperation of the women, the poverty they are facing if nothing is done about the fishing. It is not a happy read but it is absolutely worth reading at least once because it’s hauntingly beautiful and it is based on the real events that happened, too. It’s actually a little bit more horrifying once you remember it while you are reading.