Book review: The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Historical novels require research. This is obvious. Yet the research should not be obtrusive. It should be absorbed and lived with so that the novel seems to have been remembered rather than made from books and documents. The difference is evident in Scott’s Waverley novels. All those set in Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries are made from material that had matured in his memory since boyhood, so their roots are deep. His mediaeval novels owe more to bookwork, to what we recognize as research. Yet in the best of them – Quentin Durward, for example – his imagination so plays on 15th century France that the novel has some of the rich qualities of the Scottish novels.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave 

PIC: Tom de Freston
Kiran Millwood Hargrave PIC: Tom de Freston

I do not know how long Kiran Millwood Hargrave has lived with the material from which she has made The Mercies, a novel that culminates in a trial for witchcraft in the far north of Norway in the 17th century. She is a young writer, hitherto known as a poet and author of novels for young adults. This is her first novel for adults and since, according to her author’s note, it was inspired by an installation on the island of Vardo, where it is set, one assumes that her interest in its subject-matter is fairly recent, and that much has been drawn from books. Nevertheless, she has absorbed her research and allowed her imagination to play pleasingly on her characters, part Norwegian and Christian, part Sami or Lapp and pagan.

The outline of the story is simple. A terrible storm blows up and the men in this small fishing community are drowned, leaving the women to struggle on their own. The King of the Danish-Norwegian State is a strict Lutheran, disturbed by reports of the survival of pagan practices in the north of his kingdom, associating these with witchcraft. Impressed by the book on witchcraft and demonology written by his brother-in-law, our James VI & I, he is determined to stamp this out and appoints a Scotsman named Cunningham as Governor of the province. Cunningham recruits a fellow-Scot, an Orcadian called Cornet, as a Commissioner. Cornet is experienced in these matters. On his way to his charge, he marries Ursula, the daughter of a Bergen merchant. She finds her marriage difficult, her new life frightening and puzzling, but gradually she develops a friendship with two of the women in the community. This is very well done, and it is from Ursula’s horrified perspective that we will be brought to see the witch trials and experience the horrible outcome. In one sense it’s a twenty-first century interpretation, in its feminist treatment of solidarity between the women.

There are advantages for the historical novelist in having characters who don’t speak English. You can employ a neutral language for dialogue, with no need to try to give it a period flavour. That said, Hargrave carefully eschews anachronisms or what Scott called “tushery.” On the other hand, the two letters which Cunningham writes to Cornet inviting him to come to Norway to serve as his Commissioner are written in a flat, 21st century prose with no attempt at authenticity. Moreover they are, unconvincingly, in English, without even an echo of early 17th century Scots.
The novel is slow to get underway, but most readers will surely forgive this, because there is much to enjoy and admire in the patient manner in which the author sketches the background and develops her characters. Even if the publishers hadn’t alerted you to the “sinister” horrors in store, there are enough dark hints in the early chapters to hold your attention and prepare you for a tale of misunderstanding, divisions and betrayal, all the more searing because the witch-finders believe they are godly men, acting in defence of the true religion. We may see the persecution they set in motion as cruel and evil. The author may not hold the balance between them and the women who are their victims, but she recognizes that they believe they are rooting out impurities and evil in the name of the Lord. This is a notably assured first novel. It will be interesting to see what its very talented young author does next. Allan Massie

The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Picador, 339pp, £12.99