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Summary and book reviews of The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies by Kiran  Millwood Hargrave X
The Mercies by Kiran  Millwood Hargrave
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     Not Yet Rated
  • Published:
    Feb 2020, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Callum McLaughlin
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Book Summary

After the men in an Arctic Norwegian town are wiped out, the women must survive a sinister threat in this "perfectly told" 1600s parable of "a world gone mad" (Adriana Trigiani).

Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Magnusdatter stands on the craggy coast, watching the sea break into a sudden and reckless storm. Forty fishermen, including her brother and father, are drowned and left broken on the rocks below. With the menfolk wiped out, the women of the tiny Arctic town of Vardø must fend for themselves.

Three years later, a sinister figure arrives. Absalom Cornet comes from Scotland, where he burned witches in the northern isles. He brings with him his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who is both heady with her husband's authority and terrified by it. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa sees something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God, and flooded with a mighty evil.

As Maren and Ursa are drawn to one another in ways that surprise them both, the island begins to close in on them, with Absalom's iron rule threatening Vardø's very existence.

Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1621 witch trials, The Mercies is a story of love, evil, and obsession, set at the edge of civilization.

TWO

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 ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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...continued

Full Review (630 words).

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(Reviewed by Callum McLaughlin).

Media Reviews

NPR
In the end, I don't know that it was the book I wanted it to be, but it was unapologetically itself. The Mercies smolders more intensely than a pyre, whirling history's ashes defiantly into the wind.

Washington Post
[S]tartling, dramatic and relevant...Hargrave, a poet, playwright and prizewinning children’s book author, takes a little-known historical event and expands it not just into a compelling story but into a matriarchal tragedy...Writing a feminist historical novel always involves a delicate tightrope walk between modern ideas and cultural reality. The Mercies succeeds in that walk.

New York Times
The Mercies is among the best novels I’ve read in years. In addition to its beautiful writing, its subject matter is both enduring and timely...Four hundred years after the events The Mercies portrays, we need stories...to remind us of the dangers of being swept up in a maelstrom of demagogy. For such a novel to center on a cast of powerful women characters seems as appropriate to its historical context as it is to our time.

Publishers Weekly
Hargraves's tale offers a feminist take on a horrific moment in history with its focus on the subjugation of women, superstition in isolated locations, and brutality in the name of religion. This is a potent novel.

Booklist
Hargrave's expressive prose easily conveys the unforgiving landscape of mud, ice, wind, and salt...A moving tale of women given no choice but independence who are then persecuted for the 'choice' they have made.

Library Journal
The latest from Hargrave is slow paced and deliberate, as if dreading its own unhappy denouement. Its strength lies in the richly researched details of primitive Norwegian village life, which illustrate how the women scrape a livelihood from the barren subarctic.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
In clean, gripping sentences the author is wonderfully tuned to the ways and gestures of a seemingly taciturn people...This chilling tale of religious persecution is served up with a feminist bite.

Author Blurb Tracy Chevalier, New York Times bestselling author of Girl With a Pearl Earring
The Mercies took my breath away. A beautifully rendered portrait of a community, a landscape, and a relationship. I read it with equal parts hope and dread. Kiran has masterfully built up an incredible claustrophobic atmosphere, shot through with delicate intimacy. On finishing it, I pressed the book to me, hoping to absorb some of her skill.

Author Blurb Naomi Wood, author of The Hiding Game and Mrs. Hemingway
I loved The Mercies. It opened up a completely new chapter of history to me, and I loved the way it told its story in such beautiful language. I won't forget this story of these women in a Norway I knew little about. A searing historical novel.

Author Blurb Adriana Trigiani New York Times bestselling author of Tony's Wife and Kiss Carlo
Every once in a while, a modern day parable, perfectly told, reflects all that could happen in a world gone mad. Kiran Millwood Hargrave has written a novel for our times with artistry and skill. Maren's story is powerful, at turns, it is disturbing, and ultimately illuminating. You will ponder it long after you finish this magnificent work.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Remembering the Victims of the Vardø Witch Trials

Steilnest Memorial featuring mirrors and flameFor such a small and remote community, Vardø has endured more than its share of tragedy. In 1617, the small fishing town found at the easternmost point of Norway was hit by a violent storm. Its arrival was so sudden and devastating, it all but wiped out the male population, leaving behind a community of shell shocked women and children. Their journey through grief, and their attempt to adjust to a whole new way of life, was made all the more difficult by the threat of witch hunts spreading across Europe at the time. This scenario is evocatively captured in Kiran Millwood Hargrave's novel The Mercies.

Witch trials (which are estimated to have taken anywhere from 16,000 to 50,000 lives in Europe alone) originated in the 15th century, ...

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