Excerpt from The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Mercies

by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies by Kiran  Millwood Hargrave X
The Mercies by Kiran  Millwood Hargrave
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2020, 336 pages

    Feb 2021, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Callum McLaughlin
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Overnight, the world turns white. Snow piles on snow, filling the windows and the mouths of doors. The kirke stands dark that Christmas, that first day after, a hole between the lit houses, swallowing light.

They are snowed in for three days, Diinna portioned off in her narrow room, Maren unable to rouse herself any more than she can Mamma. They eat nothing but old bread, settling like pebbles in their stomachs. Maren feels the food so solid inside her, and her body so unreal about it, she imagines herself pinned down to the earth only by Mamma's stale loaves. If she doesn't eat, she will become smoke and gather in the eaves of their house.

She keeps herself together by filling her belly until it aches, and by placing as much of herself as possible in the warmth from the fire. Everywhere it touches, she tells herself, she is real. She lifts her hair to show the grubby nape of her neck, spreads her fingers to let the warmth lick between them, lifts her skirts so her woollen stockings begin to singe and stink. There, and there, and there. Her breasts, back, and between them her heart, are caught in her winter vest, bundled tight together.

The second day, for the first time in years, the fire goes out. Pappa always laid it, and they only tended it, keeping it banked at night and breaking its crust each morning to let the hot heart of it breathe. Within hours there is a layer of frost on their blankets though Maren and her mother sleep together in the same bed. They don't speak, don't undress. Maren wraps herself in Pappa's old sealskin coat. It was not flensed properly and reeks a little of rotted fat.

Mamma wears Erik's from when he was a boy. She is dull- eyed as a smoked fish. Maren tries to make her eat, but her mother only curls into her side on the bed, sighs like a child. Maren is grateful for the blankness at the window that means the sea is hidden from sight.

Those three days are a pit she falls into. She watches Pappa's axe wink in the dark. Her tongue grows thick and mossy, the tender place where she bit it during the storm spongy and swollen, with something hard at its centre. She worries at it, and the blood makes her thirstier.

She dreams of Pappa and Erik, wakes dank and sweating, hands freezing. She dreams of Dag and when he opens his mouth it is full of nails meant for their bed. She wonders if they will die there, whether Diinna is already dead, her baby still paddling inside her, slowing. She wonders if God will come to them, and tell them to live.

They are both of them reeking when Kirsten Sørensdatter digs them out on the third night. Kirsten helps them restack and light the fire at last. When she clears the path to Diinna's door, Diinna looks almost furious, the dull gleam of her pouted lip catching in the torchlight, hands pressed hard either side of her swollen belly.

"Kirke," says Kirsten to them all. "It is the Sabbath." Even Diinna, who doesn't believe in their God, does not argue.

It isn't until they are all gathered in the kirke that Maren understands: nearly all their men are dead.

Toril Knudsdatter lights the candles, every one, until the room blazes so bright it stings Maren's eyes. She counts silently. There once were fifty-three men, and now they have but thir- teen left: two babes in arms, three elders, and the rest boys too small for the boats. Even the minister is lost.

The women sit in their usual pews, hollows left between where husbands and sons sat, but Kirsten orders them forwards. All but Diinna obey, dumb as a herd. They take up three of the kirke 's seven rows.

"There have been wrecks before," says Kirsten. "We have survived when men are lost."

"But never so many," says Gerda Folnsdatter. "And never my husband among them. Never yours, Kirsten, or Sigfrid 's. Never Toril's son. All of them—"

Excerpted from The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. Copyright © 2020 by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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