by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
On Christmas Eve 1617, in one of the northern-most towns of Finnmark, 40 fishermen in the small town of Vardø drowned in a mysterious, unexpected and violent storm. This real-life event set in motion a chain reaction that would result in the deaths of 91 Norwegian villagers and Samis, natives of Lapland, accused of witchcraft.
This is the historical context in which The Mercies, author Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first adult novel, is set. An award-winning British author, poet, and playwright, Millwood Hargrave is better-known for her children’s books. In The Mercies, the reader watches the impending storm through the eyes of Vardø woman Maren Magnusdatter, who loses her father, brother, and betrothed in the freak storm.
With elaborate, graphic details that make the reader flinch, such as rotting corpses stored until the ground thaws enough for burial, the book has a tense realism that somehow makes the characters more endearing. The reader is not spared vivid and evocative descriptions of the odour of whale blubber, unclean bodies, the rotting dead, and the scent of burning witches. Millwood Hargrave has a talent for painting brilliant and lucid descriptions of village life and life at sea. Her austere descriptions of the Vardøhus Castle and its inhabitants draw the reader inside its sombre and stark walls.
The women of the forsaken village of Vardø are intricately described. She pays special attention to the little details of their way of life following the storm and the ways in which the aftermath of the storm unites and divides them all. The personalities of each of the women are beautifully crafted, with special attention to how their little society changes and is divided when the menfolk are no longer there. The strengths of some of the women help them but also create suspicion and envy and, with each passing day, these grotesque jealousies and vulnerabilities are highlighted and exploited.
And so begin the events that bring the mysterious new Commissioner, Scotsman Absalom Cornet, and his new young wife, Ursa, hastily married by her Norwegian father to the man who had come to Norway to hunt witches for the King. The stark comparison between the city of Bergen, where Ursa was brought up, and the women of Vardø and their way of life is beautifully executed. Despite the many differences, there are similarities in the way all the women in this story are tossed to and fro by the whims of men, their weaknesses, and their insatiable struggle for power.
With the arrival of Commissioner Cornet and his wife to Vardø, the town becomes more divided and the dangerous friendship between main protagonist Maren and the Commissioner’s wife develops amidst a dawning realisation about Absalom Cornet’s real role in the unfolding drama. To Commissioner Cornet, Vardø is a place of evil without the grace of God, while his wife, Ursa, sees instead a community of independent and self-sufficient women.
Based on real characters and an actual event, the author does admit to some creative licence in her wonderful depiction of these dark historical happenings. This novel evokes empathy with all the players in the tale; even those that perform heinous acts are written with an air of sympathy and clarity. Hargrave is able to weave a tale of compassion that has the reader understanding the motivation of the characters without necessarily agreeing with them.
In the modern town of Vardø there is a memorial to some of the women and men depicted in this story, and this book, which portrays them with strength, honour, and grace, seems like a fitting epitaph to the horrendous events that unfolded in that cold, severe northern village.