Mercies of the Past: Power and Punishment on the Norwegian Island of Vardø


Kiran Millwood Hargrave is an award-winning poet, playwright, and novelist. The Mercies is her first novel for adults. Her bestselling works for children include The Girl of Ink & Stars (Chicken House, 2016), and she has won numerous awards including the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, the British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year, and the Blackwell’s Children’s Book of the Year. Her books have also been shortlisted for prizes such as the Costa Children’s Book Award, the Blue Peter Best Story Award, and the Foyles Book of the Year Award.

Millwood Hargrave’s novel, The Mercies (Picador UK / Little Brown US, 2020), is set in the seventeenth century on the remote Norwegian island of Vardø. The story is inspired by real events: a world-changing storm in 1617 off Vardø, and three years later, a series of witch trials there.

It was an art installation on the island which was the starting point for a story that took over Millwood Hargrave’s imagination. She notes, “I didn’t set foot on Vardø until the first draft was written, and the book contract signed. There was no time to make the two-flight-and-a-long-drive journey whilst drafting – the story was pouring out of me, coming too fast to think about anything else. I’d seen pictures of the installation online a year before – a metal chair perpetually aflame, surrounded by smoked mirrors, encased in black glass. It was the final major installation by Louise Bourgeois before she died, and I wanted to see it in person. When I investigated, I discovered it was on a tiny Arctic Circle island called Vardø, site of Scandinavia’s worst witch trials.”

Like many writers, Millwood Hargrave admits she “fell down a Google hole” which led to her learning the story of the 1617 storm. She adds, “Three years later, the first woman was burned at the stake, on the spot where Bourgeois’s installation now stands. This three-year gap was too enticing to ignore – I wanted to know: what happened to these women? The Mercies became the answer.”

The book opens with a young woman, Maren, experiencing an unsettling dream: a whale is beached, then butchered by the community’s menfolk before it is dead. The next day, a terrible storm erupts ‘like a finger snap’ and most of the island’s men, caught in the sudden tempest while fishing, are lost. Was the dream a portent? Was the whale sent by some ungodly force? In the aftermath of this disaster, the women of Vardø try to survive amidst a climate of religious persecution which ultimately leads to tragedy.

Millwood Hargrave is clear about what the events on Vardø say to us today: “That unthinkable things are possible. That without constant vigilance against hysteria and fear, monsters can become our masters. There is only one true monster in The Mercies – the others are simply caught up in the monster’s web – but we can become their instruments too easily. Writing this book opened my heart hugely, made me aware again of the importance of empathy and love. These are not soft concepts: they are brave and hard to hold onto in uncertain times. Which makes them all the more necessary.”

Though the novel explores the terrible acts human beings are capable of, at its heart it is a richly compelling love story. The central relationship in The Mercies – and the most positive, life-affirming relationship of the novel – is between two women, Vardø-born Maren and newcomer Ursa. Though they come from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, both are women of the 1600s and Millwood Hargrave takes seriously the need to frame their desire through their historical period.

“One of my pet hates is a historical novel where the characters are out of time,” she notes. “Feminism, lesbianism, bisexuality – these were not concepts in 1600s Norway! But lesbians have always existed, because desire has always existed. So my challenge was to allow these two women to love and desire each other, without them having a framework for it to be possible. It is inconceivable to Maren that she desires Ursa, and so she imagines herself a man. Her language when she talks about lust is firmly placed against the accepted framework. And Ursa does not recognise her feelings for what they are, possibly ever.”

Though the language of desire has to be considered in its historical context, the feeling itself is something that transcends time, and it was this approach which helped to depict the period: “It was difficult to find concrete evidence of how these people lived,” Millwood Hargrave says, “what they ate, what they wore, what they burned for fuel (there are no trees this far north). Their working- class lives, lived so far at the edge of society, are not of great interest to historians and so are mostly unremarked. But I gathered what information I could, and otherwise relied on what is unchanged throughout human history: how hunger, desire, fear, cold, and joy, feel. This is a story told through the body: it is in third person but you are inside my main characters’ bodies. You feel their bellies ache, their hearts quicken. The Mercies is about place, politics, history – but it is a human story above all.”

And this ‘human’ focus is unmistakeable in the novel’s title, which was changed from Vardø to The Mercies at quite a late stage, as Millwood Hargrave explains: “For a long time I couldn’t quite place what the key elements of the book were outside of place. But then this phrase, ‘the mercies of God’, kept popping up, and I realised this was the perfect title. Mercy is something loaded with power imbalance. We can choose to extend it, or withhold it. Too often it seems we do the latter.”

The novel offers a salutary tale of the past, which speaks loudly to our present.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: KATHERINE STANSFIELD’s latest historical crime novel, The Mermaid’s Call, set in Cornwall in 1845, is out now (Allison & Busby, 2019). She is also one half of the fantasy crime-writing duo D. K. Fields.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 92 (May 2020)

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