The first adult novel from the award-winning children's writer begins with one of the most dramatic openings I have read for a long time: it is Christmas Eve, 1617, when a shattering storm takes the lives of all the fishermen off the coast of the remote Norwegian island of Vard. The women of Vard are left to fend for themselves until the arrival of Absalom Cornet, a Scotsman who believes that evil has taken hold on the island, and that he must root it out. Based on the real-life witch trials of 1621, this is an immersive and beautifully written tale. Highly recommended.
Inspired by true events, this bewitching novel captures the suspicion that tears a community apart...
Atmospheric and unforgettable.
The most interesting historical fiction speaks of the time of writing as much as of its subject. The Mercies has all the strengths of Millwood Hargrave’s children’s fiction: strong characters, gorgeous settings, a literary commitment to women’s lives, work and relationships with each other. However, the echoing truth here is simultaneously four centuries old and sadly modern. Strong men in power can remake reality and invert reason to defend that power at any cost. Having ordained that women are weak, evidence of women’s strength must be evidence of dark magic – the more a woman survives, the more dangerous she must be. I admired the way The Mercies shows us the patriarchal fear of women’s strength and reason. It is the men in power who give themselves up to hysteria and superstition, abusing their control of others’ lives and deaths in the service of self-justifying conspiracy theories: wouldn’t it be nice if the Enlightenment had put an end to such tales?
The Mercies” is among the best novels I’ve read in years. In addition to its beautiful writing, its subject matter is both enduring and timely. In a 1996 essay titled “Why I Wrote ‘The Crucible,’” Arthur Miller offers insights on his midcentury play about the Salem witch trials, which shares themes with Hargrave’s novel: “Actions are as irrelevant during cultural and religious wars as they are in nightmares. The thing at issue is buried intentions — the secret allegiances of the alienated heart, always the main threat to the theocratic mind, as well as its immemorial quarry.” Four hundred years after the events “The Mercies” portrays, we need stories — just as Americans in the 1950s needed “The Crucible” — to remind us of the dangers of being swept up in a maelstrom of demagogy. For such a novel to center on a cast of powerful women characters seems as appropriate to its historical context as it is to our time.
Much of the story, including the deaths in the storm and the authorities’ response, is based on history, but Hargrave does a fine job of shaping her raw material into a smooth, well-modulated narrative and breathing life into her characters. It has been described as a feminist novel, but it resists simplistic labels: many members of this matriarchal society end up being complicit in the witch-hunts, petty enmities leading to their denouncing their fellow villagers and thus condemning them to death.
The novel is slow to get underway, but most readers will surely forgive this, because there is much to enjoy and admire in the patient manner in which the author sketches the background and develops her characters. Even if the publishers hadn’t alerted you to the “sinister” horrors in store, there are enough dark hints in the early chapters to hold your attention and prepare you for a tale of misunderstanding, divisions and betrayal, all the more searing because the witch-finders believe they are godly men, acting in defence of the true religion. We may see the persecution they set in motion as cruel and evil. The author may not hold the balance between them and the women who are their victims, but she recognizes that they believe they are rooting out impurities and evil in the name of the Lord.
In 1617, the women of the remote Norwegian island of Vardo watch in helpless horror as a storm sweeps their menfolk, out fishing, to their deaths. For 18 months, the all-female community rules itself, but then a new authority arrives in the shape of a witch-obsessed magistrate, Absalom Cornet. Hargrave’s heroine Maren forms a deep bond with Ursa, Cornet’s downtrodden young wife, and the two become witnesses to his paranoid urge to root out what he sees as the work of the devil in Vardo. This is a powerful story that gathers ever more momentum as it moves towards its conclusion.