The Mercies, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s debut adult novel, isn’t out until February 6th 2020, which is a shame because it’s ALL! I! WANT! TO! TALK! ABOUT! It’s a gorgeous book, with the cover inspired by Rosemaling, a traditional Norwegian folk art where wood is painted with decorative floral art.
Read me for the…
- Historical fiction (1600s Norway)
- Beautiful settings
- F/F romance
- Strong women
- Witch trials ( ☹ )
Arranged marriage and non-graphic marital rape, non-graphic sexual and domestic violence and coercive control. Violence against women, systematic and cultural sexism. Racism, religious fanaticism, witch hunts and associated torture and murder. Grief and loss of family, mass death due to natural disaster. Also, Absalom Cornet deserves his own trigger warning.
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.
What did I love?
- The tone: This book is dark, and miserable. It’s as cold and bitter as the winters that Kiran Millwood Hargrave so beautifully describes. This wasn’t a gentle or soft story, it was sad and haunting and it left me angry. But that was part of what made it such a powerful and compelling read. I don’t tend to read historical fiction, and I requested this book because of my fascination with witch-trials and the hype around Millwood Hargrave’s first adult novel rather than an interest in the genre. But, despite my usual disinterest in historical fiction, I was engaged in this from the start. The language was poetic and vivid, and I could practically feel the cold as I read this, even in the early-September heat. Once I’d hit the 50% mark, I was in it until the very end, because I couldn’t put it down for fear of what was going to happen to the characters I’d become so attached to. There is romance in this story, and the relationship between Maren and Ursa is beautiful (more on that later) but the real undercurrent of this story is suspicion and fear.
From the moment the first fractures appear in the Vardø women, and they start to separate into two groups, you get a strong sense of impending sorrow. It’s not going to end happily, and that only gets clearer the further you get into the book. I found myself increasingly invested in just getting the characters I love to the end of the book alive. My flatmate came home when I was 90% finished with this novel, and I think she’d agree that I was very pathetic as I told her ‘I don’t think I have enough pages left for this to end happily’. Still, the ending itself was as beautiful as the rest of this book, and I immediately turned to Twitter to find anyone I could talk about it with. My biggest regret is reading this book in September when nobody I know has read it.
- Maren and Ursa: I loved Maren and Ursa, and their relationship. Maren is hard-working and drawn thin, embittered by the storm and her loss. She’s lost pretty much everything, and she’s watching her family fall apart as suspicion tears between her mother and her sister-in-law. She’s drawn to Ursa from the first time she sees her. Ursa was raised with servants and money until her mother passed away and her family’s fortune changed. She was her sister’s nurse and best friend, until her father married her off to Absalom Cornet for a ‘better’ future. Maren and Ursa have an organic love, one that comes naturally from care and affection and as a side-effect of two women being each other’s only gentle touch in a harsh and cruel world. It was beautiful. It felt like they had found something safe and peaceful together, and I was in constant fear that Absalom or the kirke-women were going to shatter that fragile peace.
- Absalom Cornet: Okay, I didn’t LOVE Absalom. I hated him. I hate him viscerally, and spent most of my time reading this book tweeting angrily about how much I absolutely hate him. But that made him a really compelling villain of this piece. When we first meet him, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, because some of his behaviour could be attributed to the way that society at the time treated women, and societal norms don’t necessarily make someone a bad person. The rest of Absalom’s behaviour makes him a bad person, and I progressed from benefit of the doubt to actively wanting to burn him at the stake. He wasn’t scary like a fantasy villain, because he was always just a man, but I found him upsetting and scary to read about nonetheless because he had so much power over these women and nobody to rein him in.
What did I not love?
- Absalom Cornet: I’m putting him on this list too, because while I loved the way Absalom Cornet was portrayed, I maintain that I absolutely HATE him.
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.
Where can I buy?
If you can, please support your local independent booksellers!