BookBrowse Reviews The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

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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
    Paperback:
    Feb 2021, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Callum McLaughlin
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The divide of gender, the dark side of religion, and the resilience of the human spirit are placed beneath the microscope in this evocative historical novel, inspired by real life tragedy.

It's 1617 and a violent storm has claimed the lives of 40 fishermen off the coast of Vardø, a remote Norwegian settlement. Aside from a handful of elders, this amounts to almost the entire male population, leaving behind a devastated community of women and children. These women spend the next three years establishing a newfound self-sufficiency while navigating their immense collective grief. This matriarchy is interrupted by the arrival of Absalom Cornet, a God-fearing Christian and renowned witch hunter from Scotland. He is summoned by the King of Norway to bring the women of Vardø to heel once more, and to stamp out any lingering trace of native Sámi culture—its spiritualism and strong ties to the land considered an obstacle to establishing absolute reverence for his own God.

With subtlety and tact, Kiran Millwood Hargrave explores the ingrained societal roles that define and separate us, with a particular focus on the trappings of gender and religion. Though distressed by their losses, the women of Vardø experience an unexpected liberty when forced to take over duties once reserved for men. Tensions already existed between those who followed Christian teachings and those who favored older Sámi ways, but a code of tolerance made room for everyone's beliefs. It is only with the arrival of Cornet, and his tyrannical insistence that everyone follow the rule of the Church—lest they be accused of witchcraft—that frays begin to show. The women are increasingly forced to declare their loyalties, independence crushed by the vise-like grip of resurgent patriarchy. Differences that were once accepted are now the grounds for accusation, trial and certain death. There is great sadness in witnessing this once harmonious community turning on itself—the corrupting power of fear driving former friends to betray each other in desperate bids to secure their own safety.

Among these women are Maren, a native of Vardø, and Ursa, Cornet's new wife. The latter is plucked from the comparative splendor of a wealthy home in Bergen with all the grace and romance of a business transaction during Cornet's journey from Scotland. Adjusting from life in a populous city in the southwest to the barren expanse of the icy north is no small feat, and through the two women's blossoming relationship, Hargrave touches on the delicate task of bridging class divides, the pain of forbidden love and the quiet heroism of following your heart when daring to be different is enough to get you killed.

In addition to presenting nuanced, multifaceted characters, the author skillfully evokes this particular time and place. Crystalline prose captures the raw power and awe-inspiring beauty of the landscape with equal fervor; the howl of the wind, the swell of the sea and the bite of salt practically leaping from the page. With such a vivid and transporting atmosphere, the reader remains fully invested in the story's outcome, despite the sense of inevitable doom that comes with a novel inspired by true tragic events. The author does, in fact, manage to keep the reader guessing along the way to a surprising extent. Emotional beats hit at all the right moments, and the denouement is powerfully moving in its avoidance of anticipated tropes. The narrative is impressively fresh, especially as the author sticks close to the official version of events.

The horror of witch trials—how they were used as a front to exert control and wipe out so-called "undesirables"—has been explored in fiction many times before. It is to Hargrave's credit that The Mercies feels no less emotionally engaging, factually enlightening, thematically resonant and narratively compelling as a result. She breathes life into the experiences of those too often relegated to mere statistics. If history books define victims of such trials by their deaths alone, this author asks us to remember them for the lives and loves they fought to defend.

Reviewed by Callum McLaughlin

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in March 2020, and has been updated for the March 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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