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.
Hi and welcome to my review of The Mercies!
Unwittingly I set upon the shoulders of Kiran Millwood Hargrave the vast task of distracting me in times of Covid-19. Although the coronavirus had been going around in Belgium for a while, the week I started reading The Mercies turned out to be the week the whole bloody country went mad, and my work place most of all. I desperately wanted to read but I was bone-weary every night and I don’t think I’ve ever been as scatter-brained or as easily distracted as I was then. So it took me a while to finish it, and what usually happens when a book takes too long to finish is that I get nervous and start speedreading, after all, there’s a million more books waiting to be read. That didn’t happen with The Mercies. Picking up The Mercies was something to look forward to every night, even though I could only focus for a chapter or two at most, and when I’d finally made it to the weekend, it was absolute bliss to be able to curl up on the sofa with a cuppa and the cat and The Mercies.
The Mercies is set in the remote Norwegian town of Vardø in the early 17th century. Life in this town is hard, but the people are hardened and they get by with little. When all the men are killed at sea by a freak storm, the women are left to their own devices. You’d expect some kind of sisterhood to form, the women bonding over the loss of their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers. Yet there is still rivalry, envy, and decidedly cattish behaviour in general, especially when a new male authority figure is thrust upon the little town. Commissioner Cornet is hellbent on reforming the town of Vardø, ensuring that all its residents stop their heathen ways and go to kirke like the fine Christian women they should be. If he has to hunt, torture, trial and burn a few “witches” in the process, so be it. After all, what woman can make do without a man unless she is a witch?!
The story is told from the POV of Maren and the POV of Ursa. Maren is a young woman from Vardø who has lost her father and brother in the storm, and is trying to make ends meet, for herself, her mother, and her brother’s wife and child. Ursa is originally from Bergen, but she has been chosen to become the wife of the new Commissioner who will be posted in Vardø. Living in Vardø is quite a culture shock for Ursa, who comes from a respectable family and is used to a certain degree of luxury, and her marriage is not at all what she thought it would be. While her husband should be her ally in these foreign circumstances, he is more foe than friend, controlling, domineering, and Ursa is often afraid of him. In Maren she finds a friend, someone to help her make sense of the practical things, but then again, Maren brings about a whole other kind of confusion.
The Mercies is an atmospheric, tragic and beautifully spun tale of love and friendship, folklore, racism, feminism and witch trials rooted in actual history. I loved every sentence from the dramatic start to the heartbreakingly sad finale. Highly recommended to lovers of historical fiction, lovers of Scandi literature, and just plain lovers of a great story!
Huge thanks to Kate Green @ Picador Books for sending me a glorious hardback, I love it and will continue to treasure it! All opinions are still my own.