I have a goal for myself this year to travel more of the world through the books I read. I’ve read novels set in places as far apart as Ecuador, Nigeria, and Japan, but there are still so many countries I’ve never visited – in real life or even in my books. One day in January, I discovered an upcoming novel called The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. Its simple but evocative cover captured my interest, and learning that it was set in Norway made it even more appealing. Its shocking plot – and that it’s based on real historical events – sealed the deal. I bought it upon its publication in February.
The Mercies takes us to Vardø, a town in the north-easternmost part of Norway: past Finland, north of Russia, and well within the Arctic circle. It’s Christmas Eve when nearly all the men of a small island community board a ship. But they don’t make it far out to sea before their mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters watch in horror as a storm overtakes them and drowns them all. The women are suddenly left alone to rebuild their lives. Our first main character, Maren, joins forces with a leaderly woman named Kirsten, much to the chagrin of her own mother and the more religious and conservative women in the community.
The women are not completely isolated, and eventually a pastor and a Lensmann are installed there. They are then sent a commissioner, Absalom Cornet, to help keep the women in line. Absalom is in need of a wife, so he marries a young woman from Bergen, a large city in the more heavily populated southwestern end of Norway. Ursula – Ursa for short – is naive and knows little of her new husband or how to keep a house. Her own family was once wealthy, and she sadly must leave behind her sickly sister and grieving father.
The first part of The Mercies moves slowly, building up the setting and the characters bit by bit. But by part two, the action gains speed and interest. We see a divide growing among the women over a number of issues. Should the women be fishing even though it’s man’s work? How important is it to display your Christian religion and shut out native religions? Can they trust certain women in the group? A large issue here is based in racism against Maren’s sister-in-law, Diinna, a Sámi woman. (Sámi people are an indigenous people from northern Europe.)
Mistrust and fear turns to hatred, and it’s not long before accusations of witchcraft emerge. Absalom Cornet has built his career on witch-hunting, and eventually women in Vardø are in real danger.
Ursa, meanwhile, is learning how she feels about her new husband, her new home, and the women in it. She develops a close bond with Maren and her limited group of friends, but it sets her at odds with the religious group of women her husband would prefer she spend time with. Romantic feelings also arise, complicating matters further. By the final part of The Mercies, the story reaches a horrifying, heartbreaking climax.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave writes this historical novel in crisp language, and she never shies away from describing every smell, taste, and sound. As you read, you feel as cold as the characters do, hear the strangled cry of convicted women and smell the burn of the fire. The writing is at once stark and intimate, drawing you in before you even realize it.
Each of the characters is vivid and distinct, and it’s incredible how even the villains here are sometimes shown as weak and afraid, an almost forgiving light that suggests they’re not so black and white. As the story moves forward, we watch with mounting dismay as fragile relationships crack and break wide open, leaving a chasm filled with hatred. How could neighbors and friends grow so distant? How could a mother learn to distrust and detest her daughter-in-law and only living child?
The Mercies reaches a spectacular and emotional climax, but it ends abruptly not long after. I trust that this is how it needed to end, and yet I can’t help but long for a sequel. There are so many relationships unresolved, important characters never revisited. Even if there is no sequel, the book has left my imagination so ignited that I’ve already dreamed up my own version of how the story should continue.
The Mercies is an excellent novel, and I’ll be looking out for more from Kiran Millwood Hargrave. She has already published three children’s books, plus a young adult novel called The Deathless Girls.
The 17th century kicked off with Stacey Halls’ The Familiars, a book that ended in 1617, leading right to where this book begins. The two novels even follow similar plots related to witch-hunting.
My next book in the 1600s will be The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea, so stay tuned!