’I remember once when runes gave you comfort, when sailors came to my father to cast bones and tell them of their time left to come. They are a language, Maren. Just because you do not speak it doesn’t make it devilry.’
back in the reviewing saddle.
so, no—as i anticipated, this was not scary enough to be a true ‘october is spoooooky’ read, and reviewing it in december feels even less spooky, but it is an excellent book nonetheless; female-fronted historical fiction that reminded me of the novels of jessie burton in its similarly strong character development, its attention to detail, and its perspective of women in a historical context and a time period/setting that hasn’t already been done to death. can we agree that we neverever need to publish another WWII novel?
The Mercies is based on the real-true events which occurred in 1617 in a fishing village located on one of norway’s tiny islands—when a sudden freak storm came, saw, and conquered; assaulting the fishing boats that were just heading out with the majority of the village’s menfolk on board, killing forty men in a matter of minutes.
this brief storm reduced the island’s population dramatically, leaving behind only the women and girls, the very young boys and elderly men to survive in an unforgiving climate whose livelihood had depended on their fishermen.
it was also a time where political power used religious devotion as a tool to get rid of undesirables. you know, that one time in history.
the island’s women have very little opportunity for grieving their husbands and sons; when their bodies wash ashore, they are collected and stored until the ground becomes soft enough to allow for their burial, and in the absence of able-bodied men, some of the women defy convention and take on the necessary task of fishing, to prevent their people starving to death.
theirs is a village that has been long-isolated from the greater world, and has for the most part maintained a perfunctory relationship with religion. although some are more devout than others, the island’s kirke is as much a town hall for the community to gather as it is a sacred place, and the region’s indigenous sami* people have contributed their own rituals to the fabric of the village. one of these women has even married into the community; a woman named diinna, made a widow by the storm, whose family’s cultural influence has long been a part of life on the island:
Her father is a noaidi, a shaman of good standing. Before the kirke was more fully established, their neighbor Baar Ragnvalsson and many other men went to him for charms against bad weather. They had stopped lately, with new laws brought in to ban such things, but still Maren sees the small bone figures that the Sami say will protect against bad luck on most doorsteps. Pastor Gursson always turned a blind eye, though Toril and her ilk urged him to come down harder on such practices.
after the storm, in the absence of male influence or supervision, the women step up to fill the void; capable, independent, unbound by conventional roles and duties—one woman even going so far as to wear her late husband’s trousers. his TROUSERS!!
the women are adjusting and getting by just fine on their own until the arrival of absalom cornet—a scottish commissioner and witch-hunter. with him is his new wife ursa, a young woman accustomed to city life, luxurious surroundings, and servants; unprepared both for the barebones living conditions of the island and the homemaking duties of a wife.
cornet has been summoned by king’s orders to restore godliness to the island and is horrified by the presence of runes and other evidence of heathen savagery he encounters. before long, some of the more devout women flutter under his masculine authority, relieved and reassured by a man’s presence, and to ingratiate themselves with him, they begin to denounce their less conventional neighbors, in the way of all of history’s witch hunting situations. unlike salem, where the accused were hung or smooshed by rocks, here they burn witches alive. and HOOO the witch-burning scene in this book is particularly horrifying.
the story is carried by maren, who has lost her own betrothed in the storm, and ursa; two unlikely women thrown together by circumstance, forming an unexpectedly close, and very dangerous, bond.
this is hargrave’s adult debut, and it’s an impressive one. the descriptions were strong, and reminded me of Tidelands; the similarly-situated/themed witch-series opener by philippa gregory— a hardscrabble existence on a bleak and tiny island where nature is unforgiving and women are at the mercy of powerful men and the gossip of bored or resentful neighbors, women whose reputations could be destroyed with a word or a suspicion. unlike gregory’s novel, this one has merits apart from the descriptive finesse, most notably in the character development.
ursa is especially well-written—a woman wrenched away from her home and her beloved, chronically ill, sister into a marriage arranged out of financial necessity; the culture shock of moving from comfortable, although faded, opulence to severe privation; the psychological shock of going from being a pampered daughter to becoming the wife of a man of deep religious conviction who is proud and ambitious but without any gentleness to him. he has no understanding of how to treat a lady, unless it’s a witch he’s burning, and the wedding-night sequence is excruciating to read, although her (long) wait for him to come to their room is a beautifully written scene of nervous expectation, ripe with foreshadowing.
She removes the chamber pot from sight, slides the warming pan from one side of the bed to the other. There are pale stains on the mattress, and the straw has broken through in places. She can’t face the greying pillow and so wraps her old nightdress about it.
She lies ever so carefully, makes sure her hair is about her shoulders the way Agnete told her makes it look like she lies in a field of shining yellow wheat. Lamplight comes irregularly from the dock, and through the wooden walls she hears coarse voices speaking English and Norwegian and French and other languages she can’t recognize.
Beneath is all sits a creaking sound, like their stair at home, or Father’s knees when he sits. For a long while she can’t place it, and wonders if it is inside her own mind. But then she realizes: it is the ice, relocking about the ships
maren is also a very strong character. although island born and bred, she feels more compassion and patience for ursa than many of her neighbors. ursa stands out; a pretty flower in a stark landscape, and maren is drawn to her, helping ease her transition to island living, soon understanding that ursa’s domestic helplessness is circumstantial, not a result of laziness, and that her life and her marriage are not as pleasant as one might expect—learning how much she has sacrificed; down to the most essential part of her identity: …because they will use his customs for naming, she is Mistress Absalom Cornet. Herself, lost inside his name..
this is a gorgeous piece of feminist historical fiction, full of female awakening and empowerment, despite the high cost of independence, and there is beautiful and subtle perspective-writing as the two women see in each other a reflected kindred spirit, and become more to each other than they could ever have foreseen.
it’s not out for a while, but it’s worth waiting for. like this review?
*TIL (or ‘back in october IL’) that ‘lapps’ is apparently an offensive term.
SPOOKYMONTH WINDS DOWN!
i have no expectations of this actually being a horror novel, but i won it thru the gr giveaways and it has been patiently waiting for me to finish my horror-only october readings, so in these last few days of shocktober: witches.
not horror, but maybe gentle alarm?