The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Set on an unforgiving island in Finmark, Norway, The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave is a chilling feminist thriller that happens to also be well-researched historical fiction, based on the real-life witch trials of 1621. Though I’m an avid fan of the genre, I rarely find historical fiction as artful, tensely paced and gripping as is this tale of the small village of Vardo in the aftermath of an epic storm. The storm, which is a matter of historical record, wiped out the entire Vardo fishing fleet, which had been out chasing a whale. That fleet included almost all of the village’s menfolk.
It isn’t until they are all gathered in the kirke that Maren understands: nearly all of their men are dead.
Toril Knudsdatter lights the candles, every one, until the room blazes so bright it stings Maren’s eyes. She counts silently. There were once fifty-three men, and now they have but thirteen left: two babes in arms, three elders, and the rest boys too small for the boats. Even the minister is lost.
The women sit in their usual pews, hollows left between where husbands and sons sat, but Kristen orders them forwards. All but Diinna obey, dumb as a herd. They take up three of the kirke’s seven rows.
“There have been wrecks before,” says Kristen. “We have survived when men are lost.”
“But never so many,” says Gerda Folnsdatter. “And never my husband among them. Never yours, Kristen, or Sigfrid’s. Never Toril’s son. All of them—”
She grips at her throat, falls silent.
The result of this tragedy in such a harsh and barren climate is an atmosphere of persecution and unearthly danger. Their existence already hard-scrabble, Vardo’s women must band together to survive, and while they feed themselves by heroically going to sea to fish in the men’s place, the outside world in the form of religious authorities only punishes them further. A Commissioner of the church — known for his zealousness for witch trials — arrives. He sees evil in the workings of the storm, in the women wearing trousers, and in the non-Christian villagers, the native Sami who believe in wind weaving and other pagan “magics.”
Protagonist Maren is a young woman whose fiance died in the storm along with her father and her brother, who was married to a Sami woman, Diinna. Her counterpoint protagonist, Ursa, arrives on the island with the Commissioner as his new wife. Very new. Her husband had been advised to get a Norweigan wife on his way to his post to ease his assimilation into the community. Ursa married him sight unseen — and ignorant of her husband’s calling to hunt and try witches.
The banister is very smooth, and throws up the scent of beeswax Siv has not buffed off fully. (Ursa) hopes they will not have to touch. Of course they will not. But all the same she imagines him reaching for her hand and sliding right off, greasy with wax. He has no face and she realizes that soon he will. And a body, a voice, and a smell.
Again, the unfolding of The Mercies could not be paced better as it alternates between these women facing different edges of the same danger. Maren must protect her sister-in-law and half-Sami nephew from the Church’s suspicion without coming under suspicion herself — especially after two friends she believes innocent are hauled off to face charges of witchcraft. Ursa, on the other hand, must protect herself first from her husband, who has shown both the ability and willingness to hurt her.
The writing here is almost mythic: spare but resonant and full of passion, reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale but more chilling for its basis in fact. The Mercies is also tender, though, in giving these two young women each other when Maren becomes Ursa’s household helper and closest friend.
[Maren] is caught suddenly about the chest, remembering Ursa. How she had made the new coat look like something rare and lovely, the way a bird wears is feathers.
She doesn’t know that Maren stitched two small runes into her sleeve, the ones Diinna once taught her meant protection from harm, and care. It pleases her to think of it now, like messages scrawled in invisible ink, worn against Ursa’s pale wrist, the smooth passages of her veins green and meltwater.
Hailed as a feminist tale of love, evil and obsession at the edge of civilization, The Mercies is one of 2020’s early stunners and was easily one of my favorite recent reads.