Everything about The Mercies caught my attention: I enjoy historical fiction and this particular setting made it sound all the more atmospheric. I was not disappointed: it turned out to be a cracking read!
In the book, the catalyst for all the upheaval unleashed in the small community of Vardø – a tiny village on an island perched on the edge of the world (now Norway) – takes place right away: a freak storm that strikes unexpectedly, on Christmas Eve of 1617. For the men, out on their boats, there is nowhere to take shelter and they are wiped out in a blink-and-you miss-it moment of sheer terror. The grieving women – their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters – along with small boys and old men are left to process the horror. At first, the snowy surroundings form an almost soothing cocoon, where they take refuge from their pain, but soon it becomes clear that such ruthless, inhospitable landscape will prove lethal if they don’t begin to fend for themselves. And that’s when trouble starts.
Religion, race and the role of women – as well as the search for a scapegoat when tragedy strikes – are all themes explored in the narration. The story follows along the fault lines that build up in the small community, fuelled by different beliefs, gossip and petty jealousies. The bubbling resentment comes to a head when Absalom Cornet arrives on the scene. An austere and inflexible individual, he has no qualms about resorting to any means – however barbaric – to reach his goal of bringing the women of Vardø under his spell and rule. As an experienced witch-hunter, he’s an expert manipulator, hell-bent on persecuting those he perceives to be different and a danger to his beliefs.
Amidst such chaos and growing violence, there is a spark of something beautiful: Ursa (Absalom’s young wife) strikes up a friendship with Maren, who is one of the most outspoken women on the island. Both young, alone and inexperienced, they help each other to survive in a village changed beyond recognition, where men are trying to re-establish their dominance.
There are many strong characters in this book, and I think the passion, strength and determination of the women fighting for their independence are all portrayed extremely well. And I love the way the landscape and weather almost become additional characters in the story, alternating between a threatening presence and soothing ally.
A lot is packed into this story. It’s gripping, captivating and incredibly moving – in short, impossible to put down, even as you fight sleep to keep reading a few more pages!