Book review: ‘The Mercies’ is a breathless heart-in-your-mouth read

You’ve heard of the witch trials before – but not like this.

Norway. 1617. A storm rises as if from nowhere as kills all the men in Maren’s freezing northern village, where it is dark for the majority of the year. The word witchcraft is less than a murmur then.

At the same time, Ursula, down in southern Norway in civilised Bergen is told she will marry and leave her beloved sister behind. And the man she is marrying? A commissioner, intent on unifying all of Norway under one church for the king. And his next target? The small fishing village that is now run entirely by women.

If you’re looking for a truly breathless, heart-in-your-mouth read, Kiran’s latest novel and her first one for adults is the book you need on your shelf.

‘The Mercies’ by Kiran Millwood Hargrave focuses on the changing Norwegian social landscape through the lens of the two women, Maren and Ursula, as suspicion and religious divides take root in their small and isolated community.

When we think of witch trials, we think of Salem and seizures and men grasping for the land of independent women and widows. But witch trials were not solely contained to the U.S. as Hargrave explores in this humming and electric tale of two women.

She examines how small divides can suddenly become impossible-to-cross chasms within a community when the cracks are exploited. How quickly unease can become fear, how distrust and self-preservation are not so different, when corrupting influences slither into the folds of what should be shared trauma.

The perfect storm, the small and dark town of Vardo closes in on Maren and Ursula as they form a friendship – first of necessity and then something deeper – as they try to coexist in a space that cannot hold so many conflicting views. They navigate the changing social landscape of Norway as the old ways are driven out by a new religious agenda and tensions rise as we breathlessly read along with this incredible journey.

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