The mercies | Kiran Millward Hargrave

I thought about this book all the time while I was reading it. I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and what might happen next, and I never think about what might happen next in books (or indeed in life). And I kept thinking about them after I’d finished it. So either I’ve evolved as a reader, or this book affected me in a unique way. I’m going with the latter.

Everything about The mercies was just so beautifully done: the characters, settings, detail, tension. And to hew such a rich mine of material from a small bleak depopulated Norwegian island in the dour seventeenth century is an achievement indeed. The island is overshadowed initially by grief, then by religious mania. It becomes a community of women overnight, after all the men die at sea in a storm; it then attracts the attentions of the witch-obsessed church, concerned at the unnatural existence of women continuing to survive on their own. Bonds of affection between the women develop hesitantly (and movingly) in this desolate climate, but hostilities also arise, stoked by the church. And then the accusations of witchcraft start: against the indigenous pagan Sami people, against women who are too independent or outspoken, and against anyone whose neighbour has a grudge. The tensions and divided loyalties within the town as the witch-hunt builds are utterly chilling and feel absolutely believable. To defend a woman accused of witchcraft is to risk death; silence guarantees she will die. It’s the same feeling that The Handmaid’s Tale evokes, and it’s Atwoodian kind of material, there’s no doubt. But Margaret Atwood offers a philosophical kind of read. Kiran Millward Hargrave in this book does everything that you read Atwood for – with an intense emotional connection and sensual core. I can’t offer much higher praise.