The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave was my first finished book of this year and it was a really good one. It is a historical fiction novel set in the small island town of Vardø, Norway, and is based on the real event of a sea storm in 1617 which killed most of the male population while they were out fishing. While this event alone could make for a really interesting story, it is the witch trials – the first in Norway – following the storm that make this book a hard but rewarding read.
The story follows two main characters. One of them is Maren, who had to witness the death of her father, brother and betrothed during the storm. We follow her struggles as she has to adapt to the new life with the rest of the women of Vardø. While still coming to terms with the trauma of losing so many people, they have to fend for themselves in order to stay alive. The second point of view is that of Ursula, wife of the new comissioner coming to Vardø. He is supposed to assist the appointed minister to keep the women on a tighter leash.
The comissioner’s arrival deepens a divide that has begun to emerge between the women. There are the kirke-women, going to church and praying and focusing on womanly and godly behavior – and there are the rest of the women, taking on “male” tasks like fishing to keep the community alive. Maren faces the divide even in her own home, as she is left with her mother, her sister-in-law and her newborn nephew. While her mother leans more and more toward the company of the kirke-women, her sister-in-law is one of the native Sámi people which are increasingly suspected of witchcraft due to their rites and rituals.
Ursula has come to Vardø trapped in her loveless marriage to the cruel commissioner. On her way from Bergen, she envisioned a place of sisterhood to help her through her loneliness. She finds a safe haven in her growing bond with Maren, while around them conflicts are growing and finally erupting.
The writing is wonderful and lyrical, capturing the harsh setting while still providing sources of light and hope. Although this is a historical fiction novel, the tone and style reminded me a bit of last year’s buddyread of The Once and Future Witches.
While the beginning and the end of the book are really fast paced, the middle is more character-driven to illustrate the connection developing between Ursula and Maren. The difference in pacing gives the feeling that the middle drags a little, but I still enjoyed seeing the relationship between the two women grow. The commissioner is a character that fills you with dread right from the outset, and the feeling grows the more you get to know about him. Religion is once again used as a tool of oppression here. Especially in the unfolding of the conflicts you really start to question how people really could believe all the accusations thrown at the supposed witches.