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BOOK REVIEW: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

| 20 April 2020 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

January 2020
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Fiction / Historical Fiction


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.

This is a tale featuring witch trials, but that’s not what it’s about.

It’s about an island village and a storm that changed that village forever.

The rain is a weight on her shoulders, the wind slamming her back, hands tight in on themselves, grasping nothing. She is screaming so loud her throat will be bruised for days. All about her, other mothers, sisters, daughters are throwing themselves at the weather: dark, rain-slick shapes, clumsy as seals.

It’s about women in the 1600s. How society views them, treats them, makes decisions for them.

“He was in need of a ship, and a bride—”
“In that order?” whispers Ursa, and Agnete snorts so suddenly she begins to cough again. Siv rushes forwards with her spit bowl, and Ursa tightens her grip on her hand until the worst is past. Father drains his akevitt, speaks more to himself than to his daughters.
“I gave him a good price for his passage.”
And for me, Ursa thinks.

It’s about a group of women who, after the deaths of almost every many in their village at the hands of a crazy storm, step forward and take their survival into their own hands, no matter how “un-womanly” it might be.

And how everything might change in their small world, following such a colossal storm and loss of life, following the arrival of a religious commissioner only two removed from the King himself. How suspicions might grow, and gossip might turn to spite, and it all might get out of hand.

Maren watches as the word ripples around the assembled women like a current. One by one they raise their fingers, hatred so bald and terrible on their faces it makes Maren’s breath catch in her throat.


Unlike many books around witch trials and superstition in the 1600s, The Mercies takes its time building the scene and making you fall in love with the characters before the witch trials come anywhere near the plot. But even though it takes a while to get there, the writing is just so beautiful that you won’t be able to put it down.

There are mentions of trials going on elsewhere, and even many mentions of executions and burnings, and you can see that the rifts between the women of the village are going to end in tears… and more. But part of the beauty of this story is growing to know these women more and more with each chapter, while knowing what is coming. Something they definitely don’t see the gravity of until it is far too late.

They imagine he will be like their minister, have as little impact as snow falling in the sea. They imagine that their lives will go on, and that the worst is behind them. They imagine all sorts of silly, inconsequential things, and every bit of it is wrong.

This was a time when it was unseemly for a woman to do the fishing in order to survive, or to wear pants, women were too delicate to attend the ducking of a suspected witch, but were encouraged to attend the burning of a “confirmed” witch.

“Absalom says it is not for a woman’s eyes,” she had said.
“Does he forget it is a woman he means to push into the sea?”

Suspected witches were beaten and branded and tortured until they confessed, and speaking up in their defence was far more likely to have you tied to the stake alongside the person you were defending. 

“I am sorry for your friend. But I cannot judge her innocent. Only God can do that.”
But it is a man who took her, thinks Maren. A woman who accused her. Though there is no use in saying it aloud.

Once accused of being a witch, you were pressured (I use this term very loosely) until you confessed and gave the names of co-conspirators. 

The story goes on, a litany of such absurdity that Ursa feels herself almost floating above it. It reads like a list of women’s gossip, from arguments over fish-drying racks to saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards. But the crowd leans forward as one to the swaying woman in the dock, voices held in check only by the Lensmann’s admonishments.

It’s a wonder anyone got through the trials without being accused, and I think the author sums this book up best in her historical note at the end.

Even writing at a distance of four hundred years, I found much to recognize. This story is about people, and how they lived; before why and how they died became what defined them.

This is a story about the people who would go on to become so heavily involved in the witch trials, but that is not what defines them. There is so much else about their world, about their daily lives, that this book paints in wondrous prose, and readers will be all the richer for having read it. 

I don’t normally say this so early in the year, but this is definitely going to be a favourite for 2020.

Category: Book Reviews

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