Review by Kate Hopkins
The Mercies is set on the Norwegian island of Vardø, and is inspired by a real-life tragedy. On Christmas Eve 1617, Maren Magnusdatter watches in horror as the island’s men – including her father, brother and fiancé – drown in a sudden violent storm as they return from fishing. The women are forced to take on masculine responsibilities in order to survive. Despite her grief, Maren finds this liberating. But the arrival of Commissioner Absalom Cornet and his new wife Ursa changes everything. The austerely religious Cornet becomes convinced that the women’s independence signifies witchcraft. And Maren finds herself falling in love with the gentle Ursa – which could put both women in terrible danger.
Millwood Hargrave paints a vivid picture of life in this seventeenth-century Scandinavian fishing community: the monotonous hard work, the oppressive power of the Kirke and the mysteries of the indigenous Sámi culture. There are wonderful descriptions of the marine landscape, ‘full of whales and seals and storms’. The narrative is perfectly paced, from its dramatic opening and the deceptive calm that follows to the heart-rending final chapters. Characterization is a particular pleasure. Millwood Hargrave largely resists the temptation to make Absalom into a simple villain, and writes movingly of the goodness of some of Vardø’s lost men, such as Maren’s brother Erik. The love between Maren and Ursa is affecting and credible, and they and the book’s other main female characters – the women’s redoubtable leader Kirsten and Maren’s Sámi sister-in-law Diinna – are compelling and sympathetic. The Mercies is an ambitious piece of storytelling, which evokes a specific era in rural Norway while exploring the timeless theme of men’s fear of independent women. It’s Millwood Hargrave’s first adult novel – hopefully there will be more to come.