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February 2022

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The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Fan of claustrophobic fiction

In a nutshell:
In the 1600s in Norway, a sudden storm kills nearly all the men in the village of Vardø. A year later, a man is sent to govern the remaining women.

Worth quoting:
“But now she knows she was foolish to believe that evil existed only out there. It was here, among them, walking on two legs, passing judgment with a human tongue.”

Why I chose it:
It was in a subscription box and I hadn’t yet read it. Then my partner got it for me for my birthday (whoops) so I figured it was a sign to finally read it.

Review:
This is a story primarily about about young women growing up and trying to make their way in difficult circumstances. On the one hand there is Maren, a resident of the village who loses her father, brother, and fiancée in the storm. Her sister-in-law is Sámi, and is pregnant with Maren’s nephew. The women attempt to deal with having lost 40 men from their village, including the town minister. Some take it upon themselves to do things like fish (which is seen as absurd for a woman to do) and try to survive in this freezing land north of the Arctic Circle, while others lean deeper into their Christianity, judging others around them who are defying their ideas of what women should be.

On the other had there is Ursa. She is promised to Absalom, the man who has been identified as the one who will go up to Vardø to ‘take control’ of the situation. She knows nothing about Absalom before she has to get on a ship with him and travel north for a month. She is unprepared to be a wife, let alone a wife in such a challenging environment, but she and Maren become friends.

Then more things happen, which I won’t share because spoilers but yikes.

The writing is great. Author Millwood Hargrave manages to create such a descriptive environment. I could picture every scene so vividly. And, like some of the crime novels I love that are set in Iceland, she is able to make such an open place feel utterly claustrophobic. And the characters she’s created are well-defined and interesting. I want to learn more about all of them, even the most vile ones.

I was about 1/3 of the way through this book when I was listening to the humor podcast Wine and Crime. If you’re not familiar, three friends pick a theme each week and learn about the background and then share two real-world examples of crimes that fit the theme. A recent one was about a specific topic, which I knew because I listened to the whole starting bit with background on the topic. And then the first story they start telling is about 1617 Vardø, in Finnmark. I hit pause and double-checked and yup, they were about to talk about the historical incident that this book is based on. So I was spoiled, wish I hadn’t been, but it didn’t ruin the book at all.

Recommend to a Friend / Keep / Donate it / Toss it:
Recommend to a Friend and Donate it

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