THE MERCIES by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
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On an icy, dark island, men hunt witches and women fight back.

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. The story opens in 1617 in the Arctic Circle, with a historic, strangely sudden storm off the island of Vardø. Maren, 20, has run to the harbor as her father, brother, and fiance founder in boats at sea. “All about her, other mothers, sisters, daughters are throwing themselves at the weather: dark, rain-slick shapes, clumsy as seals.” Forty men drown in the Christmas Eve storm, leaving their Norwegian womenfolk in a treeless village, sunk in winter darkness. The women winch the men’s corpses off the rocks, up the cliffs, and store them in a boathouse; the ground is far too frozen to breach. They butcher reindeer and, after much dissention, split over the radical step of going to sea to fish for themselves. News reaches the authorities, who send first a preacher, then someone more sinister, Scotsman Absalom Cornet, who has already executed a woman for witchery. He brings a bewildered new wife, Ursa, a young city woman, ignorant of her husband’s history. She forms a fast, unlikely bond with Maren. To Absalom, the lethal storm seems suspiciously supernatural and the customs of the local Laplanders—Sámi people—an abomination. The tension ratchets across the novel’s three sections: “Storm,” “Arrival,” and “Hunt.” The women—divided, watchful, unlettered, and bereaved—are prey, but they are not helpless. In clean, gripping sentences the author is wonderfully tuned to the ways and gestures of a seemingly taciturn people. “Even writing at a distance of four hundred years, I found much to recognize,” she states in her historical note. “This story is about people, and how they lived; before why and how they died became what defined them.”

This chilling tale of religious persecution is served up with a feminist bite.

Pub Date: Feb. 11th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-316-52925-9
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Little, Brown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2019