About the Book
Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Bergensdatter 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 Northern 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 pushed together and 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 1620 witch trials, The Mercies is a feminist story of love, evil, and obsession, set at the edge of civilization.
Format: Hardcover (352 pages) Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Publication date: 11th February 2020 Genre: Historical Fiction
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There’s no doubt that The Mercies has real atmosphere with its dramatic opening scenes and the sense of folklore and traditions handed down through generations that runs through it. The author really conveys the hardships of living in such an inhospitable environment. The daily tasks carried out by the women of the community are described in detail: butchering reindeer meat, baking bread, foraging for herbs or birds’ eggs, preparing and sowing skins into garments. Following the loss of the men of the village, Vardø becomes a community of women forced to fend for themselves in ways some consider ‘ungodly’.
If you’re looking for male characters with any admirable qualities you’re going to be disappointed, the exception perhaps being the captain of the ship that brings Ursa to Vardø. In particular, Ursa’s husband, Absalom Cornet, is cruel, brutal and unfeeling, convinced he is doing God’s work by rooting out witches. His fanaticism is chiefly directed at the Sami people, such as Maren’s sister-in-law Diinna, but it doesn’t take much persuading for some members of the community to turn on any of those who are different or whose ways they don’t understand.
After the drama of the opening chapters, I found the pace of the book lagged a little as the focus moves to charting the gradual development of the relationship between Maren and Ursa from dependence, to trust, to friendship and affection. Indeed, it’s only in the last quarter of the book that the events leading up to the witch trials are introduced. When they are, there are some truly chilling scenes.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Jessie Buckley. I thought her narration was excellent and, although I’m no expert, her pronunciation of the Norwegian names sounded convincing to me. On the other hand, because many of the women in the village had names that sounded similar, I did find it a challenge to remember who was who on occasions. Perhaps this is a case where it would have been easier if I’d seen the names written down.
I can see why The Mercies has received such critical acclaim even if I couldn’t quite share the same overwhelming enthusiasm myself.
In three words: Atmospheric, intense, authentic
Try something similar: Widdershins by Helen Steadman
About the Author
Kiran Millwood Hargrave is an award winning poet, playwright, and novelist. Her books include the bestselling winner of the British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year and the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2017 The Girl of Ink & Stars, and Costa Book Awards-and Blue Peter Awards-shortlisted The Island at the End of Everything, and The Way Past Winter, Blackwell’s Children’s Book of the Year 2018. A Secret of Birds & Bone, her fourth middle grade title, was published in 2020. Julia and the Shark, in collaboration with her husband, artist Tom de Freston, was released in September 2021.
Her debut YA novel The Deathless Girls was published in 2019, and was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize, and long listed for the CILIP Carnegie Medal. Her first book for adults, The Mercies, debuted as The Times number 1 bestseller, and at number 5 in the Sunday Times Bestseller Charts. Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Emily Barton called it ‘among the best novels I’ve read in years’, and it won a Betty Trask Award. (Bio/Photo credit: Goodreads author page)