#BookReview The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies AudioAbout 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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My Review

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 similarWiddershins by Helen Steadman

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Kiran Millwood HargraveAbout 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)

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#BookReview The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Simon Mawer @WFHowes

The Girl Who Fell From The SkyAbout the Book

Marian Sutro is an outsider: the daughter of a diplomat, half French, half British, naive yet too clever for her own good. But when she is recruited from her desk job by SOE to go undercover in wartime France, it seems her hybrid status – and fluent French – will be of service to a greater, more dangerous cause.

Trained in sabotage, dead-drops, how to perform under interrogation and how to kill, Marian parachutes into south-west France, her official mission to act as a Resistance courier. But her real destination is Paris, where she must seek out family friend Clement Pelletier, once the focus of her adolescent desires. A nuclear physicist engaged in the race for a new and terrifying weapon, he is of urgent significance to her superiors. As she struggles through the strange, lethal landscape of the Occupation towards this reunion, what completes her training is the understanding that war changes everything, and neither love nor fatherland may be trusted.

Format: Audiobook (11h 33m)   Publisher: W.F. Howes
Publication date: 1st May 2012 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky was on the longlist for The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2013 and the follow-up, Tightrope, which continues Marian’s story and which I read in 2018 (I know, wrong order) won The Walter Scott Prize in 2016. I listened to the audiobook version superbly narrated by Anna Bentinck. Although I’m no expert, her French pronunciation sounded pretty flawless to me.

The book opens in dramatic style with Marian becoming literally the girl who fell from the sky. Thereafter the reader is taken back in time to Marian’s initial recruitment to a very shadowy organization whose name is not shared even with recruits. Along with others, Marion undergoes a rigorous training programme, the details of which I found absolutely fascinating. The training includes the tradecraft required for an agent going undercover in enemy territory, in this case occupied France.

Once in France, Marian adopts a series of cover names and, through her eyes, we witness the constant fear of putting a foot wrong, of having your cover blown as a result of the smallest error or betrayal by another, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The events described in the book vividly illustrate the courage of those who were part of the Resistance, risking their lives every day. The tension never lets up and I found the whole story absolutely gripping.

In three words: Compelling, action-packed, exciting

Try something similar: City of Spies by Mara Timon

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Simon MawerAbout the Author

Simon Mawer was born in 1948 in England, and spent his childhood there, in Cyprus and in Malta. He then moved to Italy, where he and his family lived for more than thirty years, and taught at the British International School in Rome. He and his wife currently live in Hastings. Simon Mawer is the author of several novels including the Man Booker shortlisted The Glass Room, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky and Tightrope. (Photo/bio credit: Publisher author page)

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