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The Mercies is a fictionalisation of real life events on Vardo, an island off the Northern coast of Norway. On Christmas Eve 1617, the fishing boat went down taking almost all the men of the island with it. Left to fend for themselves, the women take on the roles formerly carried out by the men, apparently with the blessing of the pastor. Some of the more pious women grumble, but some of the women positively thrive in the environment. Kirsten, a tall and muscular woman, finds trousers quite practical; Diinna, a Sami woman, sees the opportunity to stay away from the chapel and draw on the traditions of her heritage. 

 

But this way of life collides head on with authority when a dour Scots presbyterian, Absolom Cornet, is appointed to come to Vardo as the new commissioner and get the women back into line. He got the gig because of his expertise in finding and dealing with witches. And when witch-hunters come to town, they find witches. 

 

But with Absolom comes Ursa, a young woman from Tromso who had the misfortune to be in Absolom's line of sight when he was looking for a wife to accompany him to the island. Ursa has no experience of running a household - her family had servants for that - so she finds guidance in wifely skills from Maren, one of the islanders. 

 

This is a story about witch hunts, yes, but there are also themes of social class, feminism, urbanism and racism. The dual narrative lines - from both Maren and Ursa's perspective  - is confusing at first (it is not completely clear that Ursa has no initial connection to Vardo - but once the storylines start to intersect it becomes a powerful device. 

 

The depiction of everyday life in 17th Century Norway is convincing; it is spartan but there are still recognisable social values - bitching about floorspace and food, petty jealousies. The land is evoked well, the weather, the hardships. And there is also love between women - not just the close friendship between Maren and Ursa, but also suggestions of sexual affection. 

 

The novel's ending is satisfying and brutal, albeit the story sort off eclipses some of the more observational work that is the real strength of The Mercies. 

 

Overall, this is a solid read - not spectacular but perfectly readable. 

 

****0


 

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