Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Magnusdatter stands on the craggy coast, watching the sea break into a sudden and reckless storm. Forty fishermen, including her brother and father, are drowned and left broken on the rocks below. With the menfolk wiped out, the women of the tiny Arctic town of Vardø must fend for themselves.
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.