Book review: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Title: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Publisher: Picador

Publication date: 11 February 2020

Genre: Historical | Adult

Page extent: 336 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: 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.

The Mercies is an absolutely phenomenal book from the first page to the very last. It is both an incredibly detailed and well researched historical novel, and a stark and destructive picture of the brutality and devilry of human behaviour.

I’m new to Kiran Millwood Hargrave (though I do actually have another of their books on my shelf which I’ll certainly be picking up a lot sooner than anticipated!) But I’m so glad this is the novel I started with, as it is spectacular. The Mercies is inspired by the very real event of the 1617 Vardø storm, a sudden and catastrophic event which killed the majority of the men in a small fishing village in Norway. A village of newly independent women struggle between themselves for power and life in the wake of the tragedy, when to their surprise, a commissioner is brought in to lead them, a witch hunter from Scotland. He is a terrifying figure, one who works to control with his just and merciless Godly ways against “witchcraft” wielded by the indigenous peoples of Vardø.

What was most spectacular about this novel for me was the subtle and inevitable struggle between the women which results in their own downfall. The way the commissioner manipulates the women into turning on each other, destroying their friends, and becoming the despicable devils they fear, is so well done. It was so darkly written – the path to destruction was so brutally obvious and I just wanted to scream at these women to realise what was happening, despite knowing that of course there was no other way for this novel to go. It is both a story of the life of 1620 Vardø, and a depiction of the horrifying nature of humanity.

In contrast to this slow destruction is the blossoming friendship between Maren, one of the young women of the village, and Ursa, the commissioner’s innocent and unworldly wife. They are instantly besotted with one another, though of course neither realises at first, thinking their closeness and wonder of each other merely friendship. Their relationship was delicate and touching, and their love shines through even on the darkest of pages.

The Mercies is an excellently researched historical novel. The sense of setting and the life of those on Vardø is perfectly rendered, and makes for a both haunting yet enchanting setting. I was just completely enthralled.

Each and every character seemed extremely realised and considered. We have:
Maren: a young women of Vardø who is fascinated by Ursa and befriends her. She is a lonely and hurting character, destined to watch the destruction of those she loves and somehow keep living, from the brother and betrothed she lost in the storm, to her mother and Ursa.
Ursa: the young wife of the Commissioner, paid for and given away by her father to travel to the distant north and live as she has never been accustomed to before. Her delicate and nervous nature grows stronger and fiercer as her friendship and love for Maren grows.
Absalom: the terrifying Scottish Commissioner, filled with pride and undisguised glee that God’s will allows him to hunt down witches.
Dinna: destroyed and broken wife of Maren’s dead brother, trying to mother a child, and as one of the Indigenous people, forced to battle hatred and evil as those she lives with come to fear her.
Kirsten: strong and capable Kirsten who takes leadership in the village after the death of the men, who saves them from starvation, and who earns the wrath of those who wish to be in power.

The Mercies is a fabulous historical novel, showing the way fear corrupts even at the very edge of the world, a brutal and honest take at how humans can come to commit atrocities, and a beautiful and touching love story between Maren and Ursa.

3 thoughts on “Book review: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

  1. […] The Mercies has been one of my favourite reads of the year so far. This is a retelling of the year 1617 Vardø storm, a storm which wiped out the men in a small fishing village in Norway. The village of newly independent women must come together to survive in the cold and harsh climate. But then a commissioner is sent to the village to help lead them, a witch hunter from Scotland. What follows is a story focused on the destruction of this village, as the witch hunter riles up suspicion and hatred amongst the group of women as he tries to control them with his Godly, just ways. This book is so fantastic. There is a soft, sapphic relationship (one of my favourite couples!!), a dark descent to villainy and evil, strong friendships, and an absolutely enthalling and enchanting gothic setting. Highly recommend! You can check out my full reivew here. […]

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  2. […] Historical fiction sapphics are just killing it right now, and this is my favourite one I’ve read so far this year. The Mercies is inspired by the real life Vardø storm in the 1600s, a storm which wiped out all the men in a small fishing village in Norway. With the men dead, the women of the town are left to fend for themselves, growing independent and fighting for power amongst themselves, until a new commissioner is appointed to bring the town back in line, a witchhunter from Scotland. This commissioner is a terrifying figure and one who will manipulate these women against each other to tear the town apart. This book had such a gothic feel to it, which I absolutely loved. The setting is so haunting and icy and is the perfect mirror to these women turning on each other and destroying their friends. Alongside this witch hunt, we see a beautiful friendship and romance blossom between Maren, a villager, and Ursa, the new commissioner’s wife. Their relationship was so soft and so delicate and touching, and created such a warmth in this dark novel. You can read my full review here. […]

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