Sunday, 8 March 2020

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

About the book
On Christmas Eve, 1617, the sea around the remote Norwegian island of Vardo is thrown into a reckless storm. As Maren Magnusdatter watches, forty fishermen, including her father and brother, are lost to the waves, the menfolk of Vardo wiped out in an instant. Now the women must fend for themselves.

Eighteen months later, a sinister figure arrives. Summoned from Scotland to take control of a place at the edge of the civilized world, Absalom Cornet knows what he needs to do to bring the women of Vardo to heel. With him travels his young wife, Ursa. In Vardo, and in Maren, Ursa finds something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God and flooded with a mighty and terrible evil, one he must root out at all costs.

Inspired by the real events of the Vardo storm and the 1621 witch trials, Kiran Millwood Hargrave's The Mercies is a story about how suspicion can twist its way through a community, and a love that may prove as dangerous as it is powerful.

If you've read the blurb you might be expecting the standard witch trial story, but this is so much more. The author has created an insightful and beautiful collaboration of historical fact, culture and love. The purest of emotions and feelings of attraction when two people find they have more in common than they think.

The story is inspired by the real freak storm that hit the Varanger Fjord and killed the majority of the men in the small villages in the area. The storm set the stage as a so-called precursor to the witch trials that followed. Many of the indigenous Sami were at home in the area. Their ancestral and cultural practices were viewed as something akin to devil worship and witchcraft by the Christians, so it's an easy leap from neighbour to accusing someone as a witch.

It's easy to forget how old Ursa is, perhaps because it's the norm in her era, however the truth is she is a mere child and her marriage is arranged. She has been ripped from her family and moved to a place that couldn't be more isolated. Ursa isn't prepared for the people, the weather or being a wife to a man who seeks to make himself a name by ferreting out the evil among them.

She forges an unusual and cautious friendship to a local young woman called Maren, who finds it hard to believe that the people around her are capable of pointing the finger to ingratiate themselves, even if that finger means torture and death.

What Millwood Hargrave does really well is show the slow and insidious use of gossip, folklore and good ol' fear to malign the characters of the innocent. A healer becomes someone using magic, coincidences become summoned demons, and objects to help heal become harbingers of the devil.

It's historical fiction, a beautifully atmospheric tale of love, support and a demon called fear. Millwood Hargrave is a wonderful writer and this is a fantastic read.

Buy The Mercies at Amazon Uk or go to Goodreads for any other retailer. Publisher: Picador; pub date 6 Feb. 2020. Buy at Amazon com. Buy at Waterstones.

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