The Mercies—book review

The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Book Review The Book of Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

I was given this book for Christmas and was so excited. Right up my street. Historical—1600s—a sea journey, Norway, an island setting, a storm, a bunch of women surviving remote and desolate lives. What’s not to like?

I was well into this story before I read the blurb a bit more carefully and discovered what’s not to like. The witch trials. They’re based on fact.

What is it with these blokes in power who see strong women as such a threat that they have to burn them at the stake? A woman has poppets in her house. She wears trousers. Burn her!

So there you go, it’s a grim ending. Not a spoiler, it’s on the back cover for those who read further than the brilliant first paragraph of the blurb about the storm that wipes of the fishermen of Vardø so the island becomes a place of women.

There are two main women characters.

Maren, who loses her father, brother and fiancé in a freak storm that rises in a fingersnap. The boats are chasing a shoal of fish worried by a whale out beyond the Hornøya stack. At this point in the story it is inconceivable to think that one of the women on shore should have summoned the whale and conjured the storm. Why would anyone think that? Nine days later the men are washed up, on the beaches, on the rocks. Maren and the women lift the bodies and lay them out to await burial. It is a northern winter; the ground is too hard to dig and you can leave a body for months in a room without it decomposing.

Meanwhile, in Bergen, Ursula is given in marriage by her shipowner father to Absalom Cornet, the commissioner sent to investigate suspicions of ungodly behaviour among the Vardø women now living without menfolk. Ursa fails to warm to her husband on the voyage and arrives on the island to find a village of independent women getting on with their lives, trading and fishing and herding reindeer, like you do. Her husband finds a coven of wind weavers and witches that needs digging out.

Maren and Ursula form a strong friendship (I thought it might have been more powerful without the sexuality) and Ursa gets to know the women: the strident Kristen who becomes a de facto leader, her neighbour who has some old beliefs, the suspicious and jealous ultra religious gossips, the ethnic Sámi who won’t go to kirke to save her life.

Inspired by true events in 1621, this is a story of abuse of authority, division in a community, and the whipping up of hysteria, with horrific consequences. Great reading, if you’ve got the guts.

Author: Cristina Sanders Blog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

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