Review: The Mercies

Hello my dear readers, bibliophiles and bookworms. It’s been a little while since I posted a review, but I feel like I’ve picked a goodie to share with you today. 

The Mercies by Karen Millwood Hargrave is the story of Maren, the most beguiling heroine you could possibly hope for. She is haunted by visceral dreams of drowning; of a great whale which swallows her whole. Then on Christmas Eve her dream is realised. However it is not she who drowns but rather the men of her village, leaving her and the other women to fend for themselves in the desolate and hard landscape of Vardo. 

Kirsten, Maren and a group of others learn how to survive without men. Some thrive and discover new freedoms. However, the arrival of a commissioner bent on ending what he views as godlessness and the fearful suspicion he brings, threatens the women of Vardo. 

He also brings with him a beautiful young wife, Ursa. She is bewildered by this village and comes to lean upon Maren to survive. In turn Maren finds that Ursa opens up a whole new world to her, promising a new sort of freedom. 

This is a beautiful book, though be ready for a storm of emotions. I found myself both nervously turning pages afraid of what might happen next, to being utterly heartbroken and then uplifted. Hargrave transports you to this frozen landscape; you can smell the sea, shiver at the icy winds and feel your skin prickle with fear. This is an utterly immersive reading experience and a treat for the senses. 

And yet the prose is at times sparse. A reflection perhaps of the spareness of the landscape, it forces you to really focus on the relationships and inner worlds of the characters, who are phenomenally well written. And what inner worlds they are, full to bursting with longing and frustrations. So much is left unspoken between the characters but as a reader you can feel the tensions and the affinity within this sisterhood. 

The bond between Ursa and Maren, and all the women in this book, makes this a true feminist fable. It is the strength of these women which is inspiring and relatable. Many of them could walk off the page and into a contemporary fiction and fit right in. Kirsten in particular – the trouser wearing, farmer, fisherwoman and unofficial matriarch of the group – seemed to capture the attention of all those reading this alongside me. The solidarity of these women, the way they bristled at the social conventions which hold them back whilst not knowing quite how to act, put me in mind of Women Talking which I reviewed a while back. Interestingly both of these novels are based on real events and both deal with women on the fringes of the “civilised” world. 

As with a number of books dealing with the near obsession which people had with witchcraft at this time it is clear that fear and suspicion were as likely to see a woman condemned as jealousy. In their strength and independence these women made themselves vulnerable. This is one of the tragedies of this book and one which the reader feels deeply. The zealousness of the religious women, and the commissioner, is all the more terrifying as it is recognisable even today. Otherness is punished as witchcraft, whilst those who keep the status quo are rewarded and revel in their piousness. I can’t help but wonder why these books have gained a great deal of popularity of late. 

Having finished the book I felt that the last section, perhaps the last 40 pages or so, were a little rushed. I felt as though I’d been robbed. The climax which the novel had been building too seemed to be upon me before I’d even had time to register it. With hindsight (and a chat with a great group of bookstagrammers) this is something which I feel a little differently about. 

Have you read The Mercies? What did you think?

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