Title: The Mercies
Writer: Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Publishing House: Picador
Date of Publication: February 6th 2020
Rating: 4 stars
”The storm comes in like a finger snap. That’s how they’ll speak in the months and years after, when it stops being only an ache behind their eyes and crushing at the base of their throats. When it finally fits into stories. Even then, it doesn’t tell how it actually was. There are ways words fall down: they give shape too easily, carelessly. And there was no grace, no ease to what Maren saw.”
Norway, 17th century. Isolated from the mainland, the women of Vardø, a fishing village, have remained alone to support themselves, after a terrible storm that led to the death of almost every man of the village. Loyal to the traditions of their homeland, they haven’t forgotten to pay homage to the myths of old along with their Christian faith. But hostility does live among them, and when a strange man (who is actually a witch hunter) arrives escorted by his young, frightened wife, danger is more tangible than ever. Whispers of witchcraft get louder and louder and no woman is safe anymore.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave has created an ambitious work, composed of a number of themes often found in today’s Historical Fiction novels. The era when witch trials monopolized the people’s interest, a time when men (and women) used religion as a means to get rid of the ones who were brave enough to follow their own route, serves as the backdrop for a story of womanhood and bravery.
Centred around a beautiful relationship, the strength of Maren and Ursa demonstrates the power of women who are united, supporting each other, protectors and nurturers. And we are also shown the results of discord when hostility and envy bring about imminent danger. Naturally, men use this to their advantage. The writing is beautiful and atmospheric. The details of the daily life of women, the chores, their gatherings are depicted to perfection. The harsh land, the whimsical sea, the wind, the fire, the traditions, everything that comes in our minds when we think of Norway can be found within the pages of this beautiful novel.
However, there are a few problems, in my opinion. I felt that the story became easily predictable, especially if the reader has read tons and tons of Historical Fiction. There are many repetitive references to Ursa’s past in Bergen and, truthfully, I am quite tired of seeing the trope of ugly sex between wives and husbands. It’s been done to death and modern writers are not D.H.Lawrence. The most important problem I faced was the dialogue. At times, it seemed a victim of the syndrome of the YA writer who decided to write a novel for adults. It is not as jarring as in other similar cases, but it is there.
The Mercies is one more example of a successfully constructed Historical Fiction novel that inserts contemporary issues in fine unison with History without being too modern or implausible. Populated with interesting characters, centred around two marvellous women and their relationship, rich in Norwegian atmosphere. It may not be perfect, but we sure do need more novels such as this.
”She knows what they are: hallowed ground, blessed by a man of God, holding naught but the remains of their men. But here, with the wind whistling through the open channels of their island, and the lit houses at her back, walking towards them seems as ill-fated as stepping from a cliff. She imagines them crashing up, thrashing down and the world seems to rock beneath her feet.”