Review: The Mercies, Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies has been on my TBR pile for a while – with a brilliant title, an intriguing premise and a beautiful cover, I knew that I’d fall hook, line and sinker for Hargrave’s dark and atmospheric novel.

Set on the remote Norwegian island of Vardo in 1617, The Mercies follows the story of a village who in one fateful moment, loses all of its men at sea. The remaining women, including Maren, are left to fend for themselves – to battle starvation, each other, and the increasing suspicion that brought by the newly solidified Christian church.

The Mercies is full of beautiful descriptions of the power and horror of the sea, historical details about Christian and Sámi culture at this time, and a general feeling that something bad is going to happen.

As I write my dissertation on ideas of women and landscapes, The Mercies fits perfectly into this category and I really loved Milgrave’s depictions of the harsh and remote landscape – and how reliant its inhabitants are on something they cannot control.

The cast of characters around protagonist Maren are wonderfully wrought – from the strong-willed Kirsten who takes charge after the disaster and later suffers the consequences, to Maren’s sister-in-law, the Sámi Diinna who is a new mother and facing prejudice because of her culture, and to the insufferably pious Toril who causes the downfall of those around her.

In contrast to Maren’s raw story of survival and suspicion, the narrative following young newly-wed Ursa leaving Bergen and heading into the wild with her witch-beating husband Absalom (what a name) is a great counterpoint. It was good to get out of the claustrophobic village and follow Ursa’s journey to Vardo, and to get a sense of the role and lives of a different kind of woman at the time. Plus, it was interesting to see the village through an outsider’s eyes.

What Milgrave did really well was portray a dim view for women at this time, that in equal turns depressed and frustrated me. Basically, you either get married off to someone you hate and endure terrible indignities and no freedom, or you are accused of being a witch and sentenced to death. I’m sure there’s a lot more grey area, as Maren and Ursa try to demonstrate, but this pithy summary is how I summarised it to my boyfriend one evening as I sighed with despair at the injustices faced by the main characters.

I liked that Milgrave didn’t try to sugarcoat this truth by enabling the women to escape these constraints because, in reality, this would have been their fate. In all its myths of great whales, wind-weavers and witches, The Mercies is based on true events. As unbelievable as it sounds, this is what happened to women seeking some kind of independence at the edge of the world.

The only thing I would say that didn’t quite settle with me with The Mercies was the pacing. I felt like the first part built up slowly and I really enjoyed the build-up – both of Ursa’s journey away from civilisation, and the growing tensions in the village. It felt a bit like everything happened too quickly at the end, and actually the novel could have been a good third longer. I kind of wanted it to be! It would have been interesting to see how everything evolved at a slower pace at the end of the novel, although I understand that everything was building up into a chaotic, terrible crescendo.

If you want to curl up and get lost in a gloomy and desolate landscape, a love story that can never end well, and a unique and fascinating piece of history, then The Mercies is the book for you. It’s wonderful escapism, and it’s much needed at this time.

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