The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave



Picador, 2020

Staff pick: Cristina

I started reading The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave at the beginning of lockdown. I didn’t choose it with lockdown in mind but it just so happened that as the coronavirus crisis expanded and I began a 14 day quarantine, its isolated claustrophic setting ended up being eerily fitting. As Jack Halberstam points out in his blog, this “intense, scary, lesbionic novel set in 17th Century Scandinavia capture(s) the vibe” of our apocalypse mania.

The action takes place in the fishing town of Vardø, in the icy extremes of Northeast Norway. The year is 1617 and the women of Vardø have just lost all their men to a sudden merciless winter storm at sea. After a period of depression and despondency, they learn to fish (a man’s job, naturally) and get back to the task of living their hard and simple lives. But the happy days are short lived with the appearance of dour (!) Scotsman Absalom Cornet and his young wife, Ursa, a seemingly timid and pampered young woman from a wealthy urban background. A Christian fundamentalist and, unknown to the women, a witch hunter, Cornet is tasked with bringing the women of Vardø into line. He very much sets his sights on Diinna, the indigenous sámi inhabitant, and vows to uproot her religious heresy by violent means. His wife Ursa however sets up an alliance with the more defiant women of the island, leading to a tense escalation of events.

Of particular interest is the glimpse we get into the lives of Vardø women in the 1600s and the fanatical logic of witch hunters but The Mercies‘ narrative also offers a critical representation of sámi persecution and patriarchal oppression.

With strong female characters, a lesbian romance, nasty patriarchal and religious oppressors and indigenous sámi characters, The Mercies is gripping literary fiction, well deserving of a place on Housmans’ fiction shelves.