Opening sentence: “Last night Maren dreamt a whale beached itself on the rocks outside her house.”
I seem to inadvertently be reading books about witch trials these days (subconsciously drawn to them, perhaps?). They were such a fascinating, brutal part of history: women literally burnt for not conforming to how men – using the guise of religion to carry out their disgusting deeds – wanted them to be.
Last year I read The Familiars by Stacey Halls, set in the same time period (1612 / 1617) as The Mercies and also about the witch trials of the time. The main difference is that where The Familiars focused on the infamous Pendle witch trials, The Mercies takes us to a remote Scandinavian island, Vardø.
As well as the witch trials, which are historical fact, this story throws in another fascinating real life element. On Christmas Eve 1612, a huge storm appeared out of nowhere and wiped out a majority of the male population of Vardø island, who were all out fishing at the time. This left an island of mainly women, fending for themselves in a time when women didn’t do that.
This gives us a very enticing setting and Kiran Millwood Hargrave uses her storytelling powers to craft two lead female characters you care about from the second you first meet them. Maren is a native Vardø woman who lost her father, brother and betrothed in the storm and Ursula is the wife (not that she had any say in it) of the newly appointed commissioner, Absalom Cornet. Absalom is sent to Vardø to install some order on an island seemingly run by women. He is a religious man and it’s not long before he identifies the women who are going to cause him a problem…
I was immediately swept up in this novel, The Mercies has a huge heart to it, in both its plot and the way it’s so lyrically written. Alongside that, it blends fact and fiction seamlessly to tell a shocking story of female persecution. Thoroughly recommend this!
/ Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC.
/ Published by Pan Macmillan 6th Feb 2020
/ 352 pages
/ Rating: 5/5