The novel delights not with surprise, but by pursuing its course of action with precision and purpose. Hargrave spares the reader no gory details, whether of birth, miscarriage or the scent of a body burning at the stake. The Mercies is among the best novels I’ve read in years. In addition to its beautiful writing, its subject matter is both enduring and timely ... as appropriate to its historical context as it is to our time.
I find that any book about witch trials creates first and foremost a feeling of impotent helplessness. What logic and reason can be applied when the law embraces malicious nonsense? And given that there's more than enough in the present to feel impotent and helpless about, what is the appeal of exploring women's senseless suffering 400 years in the past? ... For me, the appeal is in watching them find strength in each other. They labor, they teach each other, and they face the cruel sea and the even more capricious brutality of men. In every wind-blown crag and damp crevice of this book, women find ways to survive and live or die on their own terms ... In the end, I don't know that it was the book I wanted it to be, but it was unapologetically itself. The Mercies smolders more intensely than a pyre, whirling history's ashes defiantly into the wind.
Character is one of Hargrave’s strengths, and one of the novel’s most satisfying aspects is watching Maren and Ursa develop as the situation around them grows ever more dire and threatening ... Passionate, stirring and conveying a terrifying atmosphere of claustrophobic oppression, Hargrave’s gripping tale of courageous women facing overwhelming odds is helped along no end by the vividness of her bleak island location and her depiction of the dynamics of a God-fearing fishing village as opposing factions struggle for control.
... elegant and chilling ... begins with the frenzy of the storm and its deadly aftermath and finishes on a similar crescendo as the trial reaches its culmination. For the novel’s long middle, Hargrave slows the narrative down to explore the fascinating daily lives of a matriarchy isolated in the frozen north ... Hargrave teases out compelling questions about the effects of misogyny and xenophobia on the lives of women, both in the book’s 17th-century world and our own 21st-century world. Her unflinching depiction of the witch trials captures the visceral horror of the policing of women’s bodies, as well as the petty jealousies and power grabs that motivate it ... Though Hargrave’s prose is accomplished and poised, the characters' emotional lives often feel held at arm’s length. These are a taciturn people living in a cold land, and though the coldness of the book’s narrative voice fits that world, there are times when the retrained storytelling feels mismatched with the heat and drama of the book’s events ... Patient readers will find an exquisitely written story that works both as a parable for our times and as an absorbing account of women finding power and grace and love even under the most harrowing circumstances.
If readers believe that witch trials in the late 1600s only occurred in the U.S., Kiran Millwood Hargrave will enlighten them with this harrowing story based on well-documented records ... vivid and immersive ... Hargrave skillfully portrays how lines of allegiance are drawn as a handful of women emerge as potential leaders ... an exceptional work of historical fiction with a dramatic setting and perceptive insight into the rippling effects of extremism, as seen through the eyes of a carefully crafted cast of characters.
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.
The Mercies is a beautifully written, disturbing and stressful read. The sheer powerlessness of women in the face of abusive male authority is frightening, especially when we see how they have picked up their lives post-men and carried on, filling in all the traditionally male roles left behind, making sure none of them starves or freezes. We see them pull the men’s bodies from the freezing sea, store the bodies until the earth can be dug into, bury their men, and choose to carry on living as best they can. And yet, with the arrival of one man who has been given power over them, they are no longer able to live as they were. Of course, regardless of this story being actual historical fact, it is easy to draw modern day parallels, which just makes the sparse, taut narrative so much more suffocating.
... a dread-soaked retelling of real events that sets itself apart with an unusual premise and setting ... Besides its basis in history, the premise opens up fascinating questions about how women respond when the patriarchal structures they were born into collapse around them. The Mercies demonstrates faith in women's toughness and adaptability, but takes a clear-eyed view of how the old ways violently reassert themselves ... Hargrave does not provide a simplistic feminist parable: prejudice, suspicion and petty grievances set the women against each other almost immediately after the men die ... For all the novel's outer grimness, it finds a warm heart in the relationship between Maren and Ursa ... As the promise of a matriarchal society fades and survival once again becomes preeminent, the bond between the two women strengthens. By the novel's bloody end, they are the only spark of hope left.
The most interesting historical fiction speaks of the time of writing as much as of its subject. The Mercies has all the strengths of Millwood Hargrave’s children’s fiction: strong characters, gorgeous settings, a literary commitment to women’s lives, work and relationships with each other. However, the echoing truth here is simultaneously four centuries old and sadly modern. Strong men in power can remake reality and invert reason to defend that power at any cost. Having ordained that women are weak, evidence of women’s strength must be evidence of dark magic – the more a woman survives, the more dangerous she must be. I admired the way The Mercies shows us the patriarchal fear of women’s strength and reason. It is the men in power who give themselves up to hysteria and superstition, abusing their control of others’ lives and deaths in the service of self-justifying conspiracy theories: wouldn’t it be nice if the Enlightenment had put an end to such tales?
Hargrave’s expressive prose easily conveys the unforgiving landscape of mud, ice, wind, and salt and how it turns Vardø’s women into their own worst enemies, easily exploited by Absalom and complicit in terrible events. The villains are unsubtle, but Maren and Ursula are portrayed in depth and with sensitivity. Hargrave presents a moving tale of women given no choice but independence who are then persecuted for the 'choice' they have made.
The latest from Hargrave...is slow paced and deliberate, as if dreading its own unhappy denouement. It’s strength lies in the richly researched details of primitive Norwegian village life, which illustrate how the women scrape a livelihood from the barren subarctic.
British poet and playwright Hargrave plucks a piece of 400-year-old legal history—a European king’s prosecution of 91 people for witchcraft—and gives it a feminist spin ... This chilling tale of religious persecution is served up with a feminist bite.
...[a] dark, dramatic historical ... Hargraves’s tale offers a feminist take on a horrific moment in history with its focus on the subjugation of women, superstition in isolated locations, and brutality in the name of religion. This is a potent novel.