I am starting this review with unadulterated and profound gratitude to Katie Green at Picador for gifting me a copy of The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.
The Mercies is Kiran’s first adult novel, an absorbing and powerful read. This atmospheric tale weaves a spell, delighting the senses and lingering with me long after I had closed it.
Based on a true story, we begin in Vardo, a remote fishing community in North Eastern Norway, in 1617. Here, on Christmas Eve, a young woman, Maren Magnusdatter, watches from the cliffs as a freak storm claims the lives of forty men. In an instant the community’s male population is wiped out, her father, brother and betrothed included.
Suddenly the survival of the community rests entirely in the hands of the women. Once the grieving and rituals are completed, the women, led by fiery and practical, Kirsten, must do what they have never done before and take to the sea, fishing for their survival.
Life is hard, but despite tensions within the community, the women craft a life for themselves. Maren learns to live with her grief and begins to put the past behind her. She acts as the practical mainstay of her small family, absorbing and tempering the grief of both her mother and her sister- in- law Diinna.
Diinna, who gave birth shortly after the accident, is right on the fringes of the community. Her heritage lies with the Sami people and her customs, particularly those bound up in grief and mourning, drew some suspicion within the community. There are whispers that the storm was unnatural, sent or conjured by an unseen force.
It is upon this unconventional community that Absalom Cornet and his young wife Urla are thrust, three years after the accident.
Their marriage is young and arranged; Ursa has been married off by her father for the family’s financial gain. She has left behind a settled, if somewhat sheltered life in Bergen, as well as her beloved but ill younger sister.
Ursa has arrived naive, lonely and unprepared for life in such an inhospitable place. Seeking both practical and emotional support, Ursa strikes up a relationship with Maren. The two women form a connection that is originally based on need and practicality, which grows to something far beyond.
Ursa’s unease about her new life is compounded and subsequently magnified as her understanding of her husband’s role within the community develops. For Commissioner Absalom Cornet has been appointed by the authorities to bring morality, Christianity and order to this unconventional community of women. And he means to do so by any means.
This book is a stunning portrait of the power of women and how this power is harnessed in the solidarity of hardships, domesticity and knowledge passed down through the years . It returns to that haunting truth that the power of women taken by the wide reaching Witch Hunts of the 1600’s. When religious fevour began to turn against ancient knowledge and spirituality, branding strong wise women as witches and demons. It gives credence and strength to petty jealousies that build to levels of cruelty and destruction.
The portrait of a remote but tight knit community being slowly ripped apart by suspicion, vindictiveness and worse, is vividly told. The women are beautifully painted, each character coming alive through their grief, hopes and dreams. There is a feeling of connectivity and kinship on the behalf of the reader which denies the centuries that separate. In many ways this story feels all too raw and vivid; a female fight for survival which is very much relevant and pertinent today.
I read The Mercies at the tail of last year. I was quite simply entranced. I have waited to write and published my review, in no small part because I was looking for the words to do the novel justice. As I write now I am longing to reread it, to soak up the details once more.
There are certainly books this reminds me of and comparisons I could make. But I am loathe to do so. The Mercies is a book that should stand alone.
I hope it flies!