Hargrave, a poet, chooses a true historical incident to underpin her first adult novel. On Christmas Eve in 1617 a major storm affected the coast of northeastern Norway – and on the island community of Vardo all the adult men who were out fishing were drowned. In this harsh and unforgiving landscape the women had to struggle to survive – coping not just with their own traditional chores, but with those of the men too. A new minister arrives. But the early 17th century could be a toxic time for many in northern communities. In Scotland, King James is leading a personal campaign against witches and others are trying to stamp out the last vestiges of paganism or old folk traditions that they associated with devil worship. New commissioners will be sent into Finnmark to deal with these iniquities – an initial attack on male shamans will, with the arrival of an Orkney witch hunter, lead to the “searching, finding and sorting” over a hundred “witches” who will ultimately be tortured into confession and then burnt at the stake.
Hargrave will interpret what happened in Vardo. First through the life of Maren, who loses both her father, brother and fiancé in the storm, then, after about 18 months, through the tale of Ursa, new wife of the Commissioner Absalom Cornet. In this deep imagining, the two will meet after the initial trauma and the need to rebuild the community to cope with the loss of the men. The seeming early recovery of the community will then fall apart very rapidly as the incomers re-ignite old feuds and rivalries are replayed. The women will (at risk of their lives) have to choose sides under the new rules being introduced.
Focusing on individuals makes the tale both immediate and easy to parallel with one’s own family and community challenges. Most will have very little real experience of the harsh realities of living on the edge, both literally and economically – at a time when early death travelled close. More will recognise the realities of balancing family politics while living in close proximity. Maren will watch her sister-in-law Diinna give birth to her son – the last male in the family – while her hopes of marrying and having children of her own fade, only to see her at particular threat under the new regime – not helped by her mother’s vocal bitterness, which places all of them at risk.
Ursa represents other challenges of being a woman – her mother has died in childbirth, her father is losing the family business. He then marries her to an unknown husband who will be heading to isolated places in the north, leaving her both financially dependent and reliant on his goodwill. She has no experience of marriage, household chores or living in the harsh north with its largely subsistence economy, all without close female support. She is presented as vibrant, feisty, open minded and prepared to grow; ultimately loyal to her new friend at risk to herself.
Are you likely to believe the community depicted – Hargrave tries to measure the difficulties and balances of living in a very challenging environment? She tries to give an impression of women’s ongoing chores that keep the community alive even when the men were around. Perhaps she is a little naïve as to the scale of how much women in fishing communities undertook at that time. But her awareness of local bitterness that can accrue is spot on and her depictions of women seeking male approval at the expense of other women feels painfully true. The landscape feels real, maybe the trials of constant cold and darkness not so visceral.
The concept of men moving into others’ community and applying rules and restrictions (that they would never apply to themselves) on women they do not know and under threat of extreme violence is a particularly resonant one at the moment to any thinking woman who reads the news. But this is a compelling and vibrant read. Because of the tale – so clearly defined in the personal – it will not always be comfortable to read. It is recognisable at the same time as taking the reader to a different place and time. Recommended to other readers and reading groups.
Hilary White 5/5
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Picador 9781529005103 hbk Feb 2020