THE MERCIES - by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Bergensdatter stands on the craggy coast, watching the sea break into a sudden and reckless storm. Forty fishermen, including her brother and father, are drowned and left broken on the rocks below. With the menfolk wiped out, the women of the tiny Northern town of Vardø must fend for themselves.                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Three years later, a sinister figure arrives. Absalom Cornet comes from Scotland, where he burned witches in the northern isles. He brings with him his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who is both heady with her husband's authority and terrified by it. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa sees something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God and flooded with a mighty evil.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  As Maren and Ursa are pushed together and are drawn to one another in ways that surprise them both, the island begins to close in on them with Absalom's iron rule threatening Vardø's very existence

Published: February 2020 - Pan Macmillan.
Genre: Adult / historical fiction.
Pages: 320. 
Triggers/Content Advisory: Violence / rape / sexual assault / an explicit sex scene.  
Format: Paperback.
Source: Thank you so much to Pan Macmillan SA for sending me this book in exchange for an honest review. I voluntarily read and reviewed this book. All thoughts are my own. 

I don’t read much historical fiction, but occasionally a historical fiction novel will grab my attention with its theme, synopsis, or author. Kiran Harwood’s previous novel (The Deathless Girls) was brilliant, so I was keen to read her new book. 

The most distinctive thing about The Mercies is the writing. Although at times it's too colourful (I personally don't like purple prose), it is still gorgeous and profound. The scenes are visceral. The setting is haunting and atmospheric. Every description, whether of the setting or the character's emotions, is raw and vivid. The novel reads like poetry, and the story envelopes you in its chilling grasp.  

The story is slow until halfway through – after that, I was riveted. But the plot does move slowly, although seamlessly. There is a lot of build-up as events and characters gradually get the story moving, and until halfway through the book the main threat isn’t obvious. You know something’s going to happen, but you don’t sense the urgency right away. However, there are hints of the impending danger to keep you reading. It just doesn’t progress at a breakneck pace. There’s not much action, either (which makes sense for historical fiction) and I’d definitely say that the novel is more character-driven than plot-driven, too. 

  Many of them seem past caring what is true or not, only desperate for some reason, some order to the rearrangement of their lives, even if it is brought about by a lie.

The book also deals with many uncomfortable, important topics. Abuse, misogyny, hypocrisy, and religious corruption are all key themes. The female characters are abused and discriminated against by the men (particularly the male authority figures) around them, and their world and society offer no justice or reprieve. It is a barbaric world; the injustice is infuriating, no more so than when the witch trials begin, and it’s a stark reminder of gender imbalance, how much power authorities wield, and how that can play out, and did play out, in the events of these historic witch trials. Which, needless to say, were outrageous and heartbreaking. 

The characters took a while to grow on me. I think that’s because so many of them were introduced at once, and it was overwhelming to try discern their individual personalities and roles. But once I got further into the story, the main cast became clear. I could recognise their different personalities, motivations, and relationships, and I fell in love with Maren and Ursa’s characters, in particular. They’re both so clever, resilent, and fierce. It’s hard not to admire them. I also loved watching the dynamics of Maren’s relationships, how she handled the grief of losing her male family members, and how complicated her personality really is. Ursa, too, is a character to watch. She endures such change and confusion as the new wife of the cruel Absalom, who has been summoned to “handle” this community of women, but watching as she slowly begins to see the true despicable nature of her husband, and the influence Maren has on her, is fascinating and rewarding. Her character development is brilliant. I love the journey she goes on, even though it’s heartbreaking at times.   

The Mercies is a powerful, beautifully tragic story of abuse and survival. It's about a community, fraught with fear and superstition, and particularly the two women caught between their cruel, dogmatic authorities and their own beliefs and desires. 

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