Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s debut adult novel, The Mercies, is set on a remote island in Norway in the early 17th century. Loosely based on real events, it tells the story of the storm that kills almost all the men in the village and sets in motion a chain of events that ends in a witch-hunt. The narrative is shared between two main characters. Maren is a village girl who takes on masculine roles to support the village, and Ursula is the young wife of the new commissioner, a man who has been selected for the role due to his experience in trying witches. Both girls are to gradually lose their naivety as events roll on to their gruesome conclusion.
My one criticism of this book would be the fact that Maren is a stronger character than Ursula, who seems a little clichéd as the sheltered city girl married without her input, if not exactly without her consent, to a brutish husband who brings her to an isolated rural community. Millwood Hargrave’s prose is exquisite, drawing the reader in even while the events depicted become progressively more repulsive. She evokes the sights and smells of rural 17th-century Norway, such as the stench of burning whale fat and the blood of reindeer, contrasted with the herbs that the women use in their baths to try to cover other smells. The combination of the detailed, stomach-churning description and the female perspective brings to life the appalling witch trials that have become the dry facts of school history.
I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys well-written historical fiction with a feminist flavour, and particularly to fans of writers like Madeline Miller or Frances Hardinge.