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.
Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane
"as Karen Jones sets out dismayingly early in her book, the only things that the real-life ‘Calamity Jane’ can with confidence be said to have in common with her legend is that she wore trousers, swore like a navvy and was pissed all the time..."
— The Spectator
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.