The beauty of historical fiction is that you learn. It combines the pleasure and thrill of transporting yourself back in time while opening your eyes to historical events you did not know they had taken place. The Mercies, the debut adult novel by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, is that kind of book.
The story takes place between 1617 and 1621 in the fishing village of Vardø, in the extreme north-eastern part of Norway. This is a cold and remote place, inhabited by a small population of Norwegians and the indigenous Finno-Ugric people known as Sami. As you can imagine, life in Vardø is tough, with inhospitable weather, rough seas and winds that never stop blowing, mother nature constantly displays a show of power and beauty.
It all starts in Christmas Eve 1617. A brutal and unexpected storm hits the area while most of the men were out at sea, sinking 10 boats and killing 40 men. Husbands, brothers, and sons are lost and with no men to provide for the women and children, the prospect of going hungry is real. Vardø is now a place of women who need to fend for themselves and that’s what they do. Until, the arrival of a new commissioner, a Scotsman with a record of burning witches in the northern isles.
Incredibly atmospheric, The Mercies is a novel that celebrates the power of female strength and the work of a community against adversity. But it is also a lesson on how to destroy it. With the arrival of Commissioner Coronet comes the new regime in which everyone is suspected of witchcraft. The village becomes a place where is impossible to trust one another, rumours are spread, going to Kirke is essential to save your soul and, in the end, there is no room for tolerance. Fear wins.
What strikes me the most is that when the persecution starts the fingers point to the Sami villagers first. Those who are ‘different’ to us become the most evident threat. The Sami’s cultural practices are considered ungodly and must be punished. In The Mercies, as in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek, the figure of Commissioner Coronet represents the ‘civilising’ hand, the one that will save the town (or the family in the case of Kingsolver’s and Treloar’s novels) from ignorance and evil. But it always comes with a heavy price paid by the natives.
The Mercies is more than a novel about women in adverse circumstances, it’s also a story of survival and unfulfilled love. It’s a reminder of the existence of evil in the human heart and how sometimes fleeing is the only way to stay alive. As we read through the pages inspired in a shameful event in history, Kiran Millwood Hargrave shows an impeccable talent for historical research that will certainly win her many fans. It reminded me that a world with a lack of compassion, tolerance and understanding to what is unfamiliar to us is not unique to the 17th century. Turn on the news and you’ll find similarities straight away.
If you enjoyed The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, The Seal Woman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson or Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar, this novel will be perfect. This mesmerising literary treat is out in February 2020 but don’t despair, that’s what the pre-order button is for.
Jimena Gorraez 5*
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Picador 9781529005103 hbk Feb 2020