After a storm has killed off all the island’s men, two women in a 1600s Norwegian coastal village struggle to survive against both natural forces and the men who have been sent to rid the community of alleged witchcraft.
Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Bergensdatter 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 Northern town of Vardø must fend for themselves.
Three years later, a sinister figure arrives. Absalom Cornet comes from Scotland, where he burned witches in the northern isles. He brings with him his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who is both heady with her husband’s authority and terrified by it. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa sees something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God and flooded with a mighty evil.
As Maren and Ursa are pushed together and are drawn to one another in ways that surprise them both, the island begins to close in on them with Absalom’s iron rule threatening Vardø’s very existence.
At the time of writing this review Goodreads have rated this as 4.23 out of 5
6th February 2020 by Pan Macmillan aka TODAY!
I received a copy of this ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
The thing with books is that they’re not just entertaining – they can be educational. I didn’t know before reading The Mercies that Norway has its own historic witch hunt (the VardØ witch trials) which resulted in eighteen women being burned alive.
This goes to show that sadly, regardless of time and location, some members of society will always deem it fit to persecute and murder women in order to appease their individual belief system.
The Mercies never promised itself to be a true account of this horrific piece of history.
The author herself has openly stated that liberties have been taken and that what transpired historically served as inspiration for her story rather than her trying to recreate the exact events in fiction form. Not, I think, that this matters. The escalating tension has pretty much been captured astutely.
We follow two women; Maren and Ursa and this is where I feel I need to deviate from my review to tell you that Maren has now become my favourite girls name. It’s just so pretty! Anyway… Maren has been born and bred on the island while Ursa, having recently married the religiously fanatical Absolom has travelled to the island for reasons she doesn’t know.
As the reader we can make a highly educated guess as to Absolom’s reason’s for arriving at VardØ long before Ursa discovers it and if you’re into books that rely on anticipation over action than this is one for you.
Now this is where I have to be honest and say that I liked The Mercies but didn’t fall head over heels in love with it.
I’ve rated it a three and I actually find it hard to review books that I give three stars to. I didn’t hate it or dislike it so don’t want to rant but I didn’t love it so I can’t gush or share any strong emotions that I just didn’t have.
It comes down really to this: I enjoyed it but it had some issues that I couldn’t overlook.
One of those issues was with the characters of Maren and Ursa.
I was initially greatly intrigued by both of their lives; Maren’s as an islander and her growing independence as she takes on more traditionally male roles and Ursa’s as she struggles to adjust to the harsh VardØ conditions and an even harsher marriage.
The disappointment came in when I felt that their stories were more interesting when they were apart then when they were together and as both their stories join together… well, that’s not a great thing.
Maren’s story provides the insight into the history and way of life on the island and she acts as a viewpoint to the growing tension between certain groups of women (and we all know where that is headed) but I felt that Ursa had the more interesting story.
Unfortunately, while Ursa’s arrival on the island gave her story more weight, it seemed to strip Maren of hers.
The elements of Maren’s personality become more muted and it felt as though Maren was used to become something of a prop. She starts as a comparison character to Ursa, then she becomes a friend and then something more. All the while her thoughts become more preoccupied with Ursa and she loses sight of what’s happening around her.
The romantic relationship just didn’t work for me because of this reason. It was also compounded by the fact that I didn’t feel anything from Ursa’s side that made me believe she felt the same.
While I understand that a romantic relationship would have been dangerous during the time period it doesn’t necessarily add to the danger that the women are already in – because believe me – things aren’t going great on the island.
I believe that’s what the writer wanted to convey – that things would be more dangerous for them both if they were to have a romantic relationship but in all honesty they were already in danger simply for daring to exist.
It did feel a bit like the author was including a same sex relationship just to score diversity points as the romantic relationship could have been a friendship and there would have been no difference to outcome or ending. That’s why it didn’t work for me.
I will say that I adored the build-up of this story because I live for books where you know what’s going to happen but not necessarily to whom and you live in anticipation waiting for the penny to drop.
The penny does drop and it finally drops (admittedly after some incredibly pretty and atmospheric writing) but this leads to my biggest issue with the story – the pacing.
This book is a slow burn of the slowest burns and if that’s not your thing then I would say don’t go for this. If I could draw a line to represent the pacing it would be a slow and steady one for 98% of the graph followed by some erratic upwards spikes. All the drama and action happens in the last 2 – 5% of the book.
The ending is both ambiguous and abrupt and I remember swiping my Kindle thinking there was another chapter to go. I know they say the best way to end a story is at the beginning of another but I don’t think they meant it quite like this where there is absolutely no resolution at all.
If you want a tense, atmospheric story and you don’t mind a slow paced tale to get to the crescendo than you may very well enjoy The Mercies and believe me – there’s still plenty to like.
I would err on the side of caution if you’re not after historical fictions than are 90% build and 10% payoff.