The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (Review)

Even after all this, Maren thinks, Ursa believes herself to have power over him. Witch-hunter or no, Absalom is, after all, still only a man.

Rating: 4 stars

The Mercies is inspired by a historical event, the Vardø storm of 1617 where a terrible storm sank ten ships and killed forty men- the majority of Vardø’s male population. This storm ultimately led to one of the biggest witch-trials in Scandinavia, and the first major witch-trial in Norway under the new laws of witchcraft and sorcery.

Maren Magnusdatter watched her father, brother and her husband-to-be die in the sudden storm, along with all of the men in her village. Left behind are just boys that were too young to go out to fish, and the women. They must learn to fend for themselves. And they adjust, as women often do, learning to cope with their collective grief and teaching themselves to fish and to slaughter and to take on the jobs that were traditionally male. They survive that way for eighteen months, before a pious Scotsman is sent to regain control of Vardø and the women who live there. Absalom Cornet isn’t just a religious man, he is also a violent witch-hunter and where his young wife Ursa sees independent, strong women, he sees danger and evil that must be rooted out at all costs. This story is as twisted by suspicion as it is empowered by love, and shows the best and the worst that can come of a very human desire to survive.

My full ‘why to buy’ will be available in February, in time for the release of this book, but these are my initial impressions. The Mercies is a haunting, beautiful story about human nature and the impact of fear and suspicion on a small community. The storm took their menfolk, and the women were suddenly under pressure. This caused tiny fractures to appear, but there were more important concerns so the women kept keeping on, and made things work. It wasn’t until eighteen months later, when Absalom and Ursa moved to the village and Absalom began to apply pressure to those fractures that the whole community suddenly and violently broke apart.

The Mercies pretty much broke my heart, but I knew that was going to happen from the start. This book doesn’t give you any allusions that you’re going to get a happy, glorious ending, and what else would you expect? It’s the 1600s, and we’re talking about witch-hunters and sapphic characters. I was pretty sure I was getting an unhappy ending from the start but I still let myself get overly attached to the women in this story, and hoped somehow that they’d overcome the injustices of history and create a happily ever after. I finished the book, and I’m now genuinely kicking myself that I’ve read this book in September, and now I’ve got to wait until February before more people read it and I can talk about it with everyone I know.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s writing is beautiful. It’s poetic and powerful, and I was drawn into her vivid descriptions of the environment so much that I was half-convinced I could feel the chill of the ice, even when I was laid reading it in the sunshine. If this is any example of her writing, I can’t wait for my copy of The Deathless Girls to show up at the end of the month, because I’m desperate to read more of her prose. Her characters in particular were masterfully created. I felt for the women, even the kirke-women to a certain extent, because it felt so much that they were being manipulated by their society, and I felt even more for Maren and Ursa. Both women had lost everything, families fractured by loss and distance and they found each other as a tiny haven of gentle peace in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

And then there’s Absalom. At this point, there’s not much else I can say about Absalom, given that at every opportunity I write essays about how much I hate him. At first I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, reluctantly writing up his treatment of Ursa as a symptom of the way society treated women in general – still wrong, but didn’t necessarily mean that Absalom himself was a bad person. Absalom is a TERRIBLE person. I’m not going into it in much detail, because a lot of it is tied into Ursa’s discovery of her husband’s history and that’s much more powerful to read from her perspective than from mine. But let it be said: I hate him.

I don’t tend to read historical fiction, but character driven fiction is my bread and butter, and Kiran Millwood Hargrave has created a masterful character piece here, worth picking up no matter what genre you tend to read.

Pre-order here:

The Mercies is out February 6th 2020, pre-order links below. If you can, please support your local independent booksellers!

Pan Macmillan // Waterstones // Book Depository // Amazon

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