The Blurb (from Goodreads)
After a storm has killed off all the island's men, two women in a 1600s Norwegian coastal village struggle to survive against both natural forces and the men who have been sent to rid the community of alleged witchcraft.
Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Bergensdatter stands on the craggy coast, watching the sea break into a sudden and reckless storm. Forty fishermen, including her brother and father, are drowned and left broken on the rocks below. With the menfolk wiped out, the women of the tiny Northern town of Vardø must fend for themselves.
Three years later, a sinister figure arrives. Absalom Cornet comes from Scotland, where he burned witches in the northern isles. He brings with him his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who is both heady with her husband's authority and terrified by it. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa sees something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God and flooded with a mighty evil.
As Maren and Ursa are pushed together and are drawn to one another in ways that surprise them both, the island begins to close in on them with Absalom's iron rule threatening Vardø's very existence.
Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1620 witch trials, The Mercies is a feminist story of love, evil, and obsession, set at the edge of civilization.
I love books which illuminate true events in the past, particularly if they are little-known and deal with women, and other outsiders whose lives are so often not been recorded for posterity.
The Mercies is inspired by true events in early 17th century Norway. Inspired by the Scottish witch-hunts of James IV, King Christian began a crusade of religious persecution and witchcraft trials that saw the indigenous Sámi people and poor, superstitious women targeted. In all, fourteen Sámi men and seventy-seven Norwegian women named as witches were executed.
The novel begins with a freak storm that kills all the men on a small village on the far northern Norwegian coast. The women need to band together to survive, even as they struggle to recover from their shock and grief. Twenty-year-old Maren Bergensdatter has lost her father, her brother, and her betrothed. She is haunted by nightmares and paralysed by sorrow. Slowly she begins to rebuild her life, working alongside other women in the village, but their strength and independence is seen as unwomanly and soon a man is sent to rein them in. His name is Absalom Cornet and he worked in Scotland to burn witches. With him comes his young and lonely Norwegian, Ursa. The two young women are drawn together, but their close and passionate friendship endangers them both.
I loved it! One of the best books I’ve read this year.