Victoria’s Book Reviews: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave


I tell you, this book is something else. There’s a notably big marketing push behind it – posters on the underground etc. – but, honestly, it is worth every second of attention it gets. The Mercies is stunning and extraordinary, at times harrowing and even suffocating. It’s been years since I’ve felt as haunted by a book as I have this one; I feel it has cut a scar right through me.

So, how has this come to pass?

Well, first, Kiran has based her historical novel on remarkable true events: in 1617, a freak storm killed all the men from a remote Norwegian coastal village who were fishing out at sea. That village was Vardø and the women who were left behind learnt to survive and eventually thrive. However. The 17th century was a dangerous time to be a woman in control (how little we have moved on…) and, 18 months later, another group of men come to take back control…

Secondly, Kiran has placed female friendship at the heart of her debut novel. Specifically, she focuses on the blossoming intimacy between two voiceless women – Maren, whose betrothed died in the storm, and Ursa, the naïve bride who arrives with the new group of men. Each finds in the other a strength they could not find separately and it is a hugely affecting testimony to the resilience of bonds between women.

And thirdly. Kiran’s prose is remarkable. This is a brutal landscape, an isolated village more at the mercy of nature than it is dominated by human will. This is a world where passing whales are omens, and where storms rise and die in the blink of an eye. Kiran’s text reflects this. Words and emotion are sparse to begin with, as bleak as the landscape and as economical as the effort made by the women as they preserve their energies.

But the warmth and the energy bubbles up; the prose begins to lengthen, the bonds between these women develop and deepen – animosities rise and mutual dependencies emerge – and all the while, the prose becoming richer with the details of human drama.

But this novel is dominated by its sense of foreboding, and even the forewarnings from the omens and signs around the village. There is a cruelty here that is heart-breaking, that I cannot deny, but I found myself more amazed of the towering achievements in dignity and inner strength that these women develop before it comes to a crushing finale.

Masterful. One of the best books you’ll read this year and one that will stay with me a lifetime.


The Mercies is published by Picador; hardback RRP £14.99.

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