The Mercies (2020) – Kiran Milwood Hargrave

Title:The Mercies
Author:Kiran Milwood Hargrave
Publishers:Picador/Pan Macmillan
Publication date:2020
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Pan Macmillan South Africa kindly sent me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

The Mercies is inspired by the true events that took place on Christmas Eve in 1617, and further events in 1621 that ended in tragedy. The story begins with a massive storm that sweeps across the Norwegian island of Vardo drowning forty men. Days later they washed up on the island, and except for a few very old men and young children, there were only women left on the island. The legend attached to this historical event is made even more astounding in that it involves an island inhabited almost entirely by women, and that on its own was extraordinary.

Young Maren Magnusdatter wakes from a dream one morning to find that her father, brother and future husband have been drowned whilst out fishing at sea. She dreamed of a giant whale beaching itself on the shore, and the realities are a lot more devastating. Now the women of Vardo are forced to bury all their dead, and to learn to fend for themselves. Not used to governing themselves the women quickly fall into two groups: those whose dedication to the church/local kirke forbids them from performing duties traditionally meant for men, and those whose hunger overpowered the need to conform. The defining moment will occur when Kirsten Sorendatter, a woman who has always followed her own path, encourages a small group of women to take the boats out and do some much needed fishing for the village. This defiant action will be seen as an abomination by the island’s local gossip and all round moral compass Toril Knudsdatter.

Maren lives with her mother and her now deceased brother’s wife Diina and their infant son. Diinna is Sami (the indigenous people of the area who were often referred to as Laplanders or derogatorily as ‘Lapps’) and was often consulted by the local women to aide in their personal and physical lives with the use of herbs or traditional runes. Despite this link to superstition and their own spiritualism, the Norwegians have embraced the Christian faith attending the local kirke headed by Pastor Kurtsson – a well-meaning but passive individual.

The land is sparse and the living conditions harsh and very soon the women learn to survive without any assistance. Their situation though soon reaches the attention of higher powers and a Commissioner from Scotland, Absalom Cornet, is sent across the seas to take control of the women of Vardo. Before Absalom boards the ship that brings him to this isolated place he must find a suitable wife. In Bergen a young Ursula ‘Ursa’ whose younger sister Agnete due to a physical disability needs constant care, is chosen as Absalom’s bride. They are soon married, and Ursa is forced to leave behind her father, her beloved sister, and an entire way of life. Crossing the vast ocean to make a new life for herself Ursa’s fear of both the unknown and her new husband endear her to the reader.

Once the new commissioner and his young bride have arrived and taken up residence in Vardo it is not long before Ursa realizes how inadequate she is as a wife and hires Maren to help her in keeping a house and baking bread. Maren and Ursa find solace and a sense of companionship in one another which will evolve into a love neither is prepared for.

It soon becomes clear to some of the women on the island that Absalom’s presence is symbolic of something greater and more complicated than simply enforcing Christianity. His keen interest in women like Kirsten and Diina creates a rift between the women, and very soon allies are being made and lost as the islanders divide further. Superstitions that were once common place are questioned and viewed as going against the teachings of the church, and the women begin to turn on one another in a bid to seek approval from Commissioner Cornet. Those few who refuse to absolve themselves are labelled as witches and threatened with imprisonment and execution.

The women in Hargrave’s novel are a beautiful example of the human spirit and what it is capable of. As you read the pages the very cold can be felt in your bones, and the longing for a place by a roaring fire is one of the greatest desires. The women have learnt to survive in a world very different from Ursa’s back in Bergen, and women such as Kirsten and Diina are the epitome of the heathen and those that were singled out because of their differences and refusal to follow the church’s rules. Tiny rural communities survived on a mixture of some form of faith and the ability to live upon the land, and when the more ‘modern’ world began to infiltrate them a clash was inevitable, and almost always ended in tragedy.

The Mercies is a story about women, the human spirit and also how easily one can be convinced to think differently. It is also a tale of forbidden love, and the female endurance that has been tested, controlled and been found wanting for centuries. In fact this Norwegian story set in the cold, the dark, and the time of the midnight sun in an era when fear of possible witchcraft was rife and cruelty was common, is also a story that transcends the ages and is still very much a part of our narrative today. A truly astonishing read that is capable of melting the very icy wall its words have built.

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