Nicole Melanson ~
British writer Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s adult fiction debut, The Mercies, is stunning in every sense of the word. Set in 1617 on the Norwegian island of Vardo, the story opens with a group of women who have just lost all the men in their community to a terrible fishing accident. As the women learn to fend for themselves, they compete against one another for control, only to find their new power subverted by a series of male figures dispatched to “help” them.
The first assistant comes in the form of uninspiring Pastor Kurtsson, who highlights the growing divide between one faction of God-fearing women, led by Toril Knudsdatter, and another determined to take matters of survival into their own hands under the guidance of Kirsten Sorensdatter. Next comes the appointment of Hans Koning, Lensmann over Vardohus County, an unseen force for most of the book, whose impending arrival promises judgement and punitive action. The third player in this triple threat is the newly appointed Commissioner Absalom Cornet, whose sense of sovereign duty and righteousness knows no bounds.
Make no mistake, this is a novel about loss. Seen predominantly through the eyes of Maren Magnusdatter, whose father, brother, and fiancé all perished in the storm, The Mercies is a reimagining of the actual witch trials that claimed ninety-one lives in 17th-century Norway. Contemporary knowledge of how witch trials end gives this book an awful sense of foreboding and inevitability that makes for an uncomfortable reading experience. It is to Hargrave’s credit that her writing works hard to create its own tension without simply relying on the inherent horror of her subject matter.
The companion perspective to Maren Magnusdatter comes from the Commissioner’s young wife, Ursa, a naïve city girl completely unprepared for rugged life on a remote island far from her family and culture. Her position is heartbreaking as she goes from trying to connect with her new husband to realizing his cruelty, to looking for ways to leverage what little power she has even as she seeks her own salvation.
At its heart, The Mercies is an exploration of otherness. There is a poignant contrast between the civil and the wild, not just in landscape but in society itself. For all the fear the community members hold towards the unknown borders of their land and the indomitable sea, they are equally wary of any variation within their own ranks, expressing unease around the local Sámi indigenous population, including Maren’s own sister-in-law Diinna, a resentment of those who don’t seem unimpeachably Christian, and an open hostility towards any woman who dares circumvent the limitations ascribed to her gender—the latter being literally tortured to death as retribution.
What saves The Mercies from being a story we’ve heard a hundred times before—one in which we already know the ending at that—is that it gives us just enough insight into the perpetrators’ mindset to appreciate how they were able to justify their actions to themselves. It also offers a fresh setting. As someone who grew up in the shadow of Salem, Massachusetts, I’m no stranger to witch lore, but this was the first I heard about any Norwegian trials. (On a further personal note, it was a blessed relief to read 300+ pages about people freezing in the snow while we’re in the midst of a drought and bushfire crisis here in Australia.)
Above all else, The Mercies is beautifully written. Hargrave has a poetic command of language and her sense of pacing is excellent. Given the pressure on authors lately to make their work more commercial, it was refreshing to read a piece of unapologetic literary fiction with a climax that felt not only earned but properly integrated, giving The Mercies as a whole a satisfying sense of cohesion and balance.