Review Blog

Apr 21 2020

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

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Picador, 2020. ISBN: 9781529005127. 256pp.
Maren lives in the tiny settlement of Vardo on a Norwegian island in the Barents Sea close to the north-east border with Russia. It is 1617, a time when Christianity is concerning itself with devilry and witchcraft. On Christmas Eve a sudden storm drowns most of the Vardo menfolk who had put to sea to capture a school of fish. The storm drowns Maren's fiancee, Dag, her brother Eric and her father as well as the pastor. Altogether 40 men die and the women of the settlement grasp at reasons, including the suggestion that the devil sent the storm. Eric's pregnant wife, Dina, is from the Sami, the indigenous people of the area and the devout women direct suspicion at her, saying the Sami can call the devil. After nine days the bodies of the men begin to wash ashore and the women retrieve the bodies and store them until the earth thaws enough to bury them and Dina brings a Sami shaman to watch over the bodies and conduct rites for the dead creating further conflict. However the need to survive without the men leads the women to work together and put out to sea, netting fish as their menfolk had done. Eventually Pastor Nils Kurtsson is sent to lead the community but some of the women have tasted independence and found strength in it. When a Lensmann, Hans Koning, a kind of lord or sherrif, is appointed, he in turn appoints a Commissioner, Absalom Cornet, to travel to the village, stamp out any heathen tendencies and promote the church. He brings with him his bride, Ursa, from Bergen to the south. As Absalom starts to pursue his agenda, Ursa forms an unlikely friendship with Maren. The narrative swings from Maren's perspective to Ursa's and they both watch with horror as the witch hunting in the settlement starts to unfold.
Based on historical events, the narrative reflects on some of the uglier aspects of human nature and the redeeming qualities of true loyalty and friendship. A hitherto unexamined period and setting that will appeal to readers of historical fiction.
Sue Speck

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