THE PLOT: On Christmas Eve in 1617, a storm ravaged the Norwegian Island of Vardø. Most of the men drowned while fishing at sea, leaving a community of women behind. This novel is inspired by those real-life events, focusing on the fictional character of Maren – a young woman who has lost her father, brother and betrothed. When a commissioner comes to the island to bring it back under control, Maren becomes friends with his wife. However, the commissioner’s arrival threatens the community of women and starts an ominous chain of events that spiral out of control.
RATING: This is the first novel in a while that I’ve given a such a high star rating. Usually, I’m a bit stingy with my stars (sorry, Stay With Me) but I raced through this book because I found it completely compelling. Firstly, I adored the description of the desolate island either plunged into darkness or never-ending daylight. Secondly, the range of characters and their dynamics created constant tension. And, most of all, I’m so impressed by Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s writing style and technique.
GOOD BITS: Usually, I fall in love with a book’s characters. However, this time I fell in love with the setting. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a place in my heart for Maren, Kirsten and Ursa, but the island of Vardø is my true love. At its finest, historical novels evoke a sense of time and place with minimal details. The Mercies is a great example of this – every word was infused with the location and period, without any overly long passages of historical detail or explanation. I felt so absorbed, as if I was truly there.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: Two passages irked me slightly and threw me out of the narrative. Firstly, there was a lot of emphasis on Ursa’s dislike/fear of butchering her own meat from the reindeer carcasses in her store. However, when she finally gets over this fear, it’s a throwaway comment that she made her own stew. I really expected there to be a gory, bloody scene that was symbolic that she was part of the community so I felt a bit disappointed. The second one is a MASSIVE spoiler about the bathtub scene, so you’re going to have to message me to find out.
OVERALL: This is undoubtedly a beautiful novel, with a wonderful setting, tension and atmosphere. There’s lots of different aspects; it touches on patriarchy, Christianity and racism, while maintaining a core plot that is inevitable yet still completely draws you in. I found myself getting slightly annoyed at the characters, (perhaps this is what made them human), and I’m not 100% sure I understood the ending, but I don’t care. If you love historical fiction and are partial to a bit of 1600’s (the early modern period is my jam), then you should definitely read this novel.