The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Published by Picador, 6th February 2020
Genres: Historical fiction, feminism, LGBTQ+
On Christmas Eve 1617, a violent storm blows up suddenly around the remote Norwegian island of Vardo. As their wives, mothers and daughters watch from the shore, forty fishermen, the majority of the male population of the island, are lost to the sea. The women are left to pick up the pieces of their lives and take on additional work in order to survive. Tensions spring up amongst the women, further exacerbated by the rigid position of the church and whispers of witchcraft.
Absalom Cornet is summoned to Vardo from Scotland, where he built quite the reputation hunting witches. Along the way, he marries Ursula and brings her with him to Vardo. Ursula is from Bergen and wholly unprepared for the harsh life that awaits her, both the climate and living conditions on Vardo, but also the realities of married life with a man she knows nothing about.
Based on the very real storm and witch-hunting trials which hit Vardo in the early 1600s, this is a tremendous work of historical fiction. The atmosphere created by the author is so palpably tense that I found myself getting anxious reading it. The characters are rich and engaging, and I was immediately drawn into their lives.
The host of female characters was utterly believable. From the strong independent woman who defies all the rules in order to survive and help others survive, to the gossiping church women who manipulate every situation to fit their ideals, to the bonds of friendship forged in unlikely places. In a time which was so completely male-centric and in the face of such powerful male figures, the emphasis on the female characters was truly remarkable.
What I found very interesting as well were the references to the Sami culture and the “pagan” rituals and beliefs. Although going against the church, these practices were still common on the island and many people quietly went about them. But once the witch-hunting began, it was everyone for themselves and nobody was safe.
A really good read, perfect for fans of historical fiction, although it is a little dark at times.
My rating: 4/5