IN THE recent discussions about colonialism, expanding empires of the past that treated those they encountered in far-flung lands as less than human, one continent is often forgotten — Europe: those edges of the known world closer to our own that had likewise become subject to control, and to exploit what was regarded as less than civilised, and perhaps thereby also dangerous.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave takes us to the island of Vardø, in the north-east of Norway. At the time, it was still very much uncharted territory, and yet not undiscovered, owing to its strategic importance for access to the Barents Sea.
And what has been discovered needs to be controlled. The desire and the need to control, to pacify in the name of civilisation and essentially Christianity — to eradicate in the name of Christianity what is left of traditional ways to manage life, where to turn in the face of adversity, is at the heart of The Mercies.
All of Vardø’s adult men are drowned in a powerful storm at sea on Christmas Eve 1617. Traditional divisions of labour and of community functions can no longer be maintained, but life has to go on somehow. While it is acceptable for the women of Vardø to make provision for their daily needs, a line is irreversibly crossed when they take to sea to gather in a catch of fish, and when one of them dares to wear trousers; and this will be among the crimes of which Kirsten, who has emerged as a community leader after the storm, is accused.
The action in the novel begins to gain pace when Kirsten is accused of witchcraft — of conjuring up the storm that deprived the island of men, including her own husband.
In contrast to the control exercised by the men is the encounter between two women, Maren and Ursa. Maren has never known anything but life in Vardø, its way of making a living with scant resources and at the mercy of sea and the elements.
Ursa is the daughter of a ship owner in Bergen, who has fallen on hard times after the death of his wife. Her father has lost money as a result of bad decisions; so he is more than ready to offer passage, and the hand of his daughter, to a Scotsman who has been appointed as one of the Lensmann’s (district governor’s) commissioners at Vardø.
Thus Ursa is, as she feels, “sold” off to a much older man whom she does not know, and who does not appear to have any tenderness. Together with him, she boards the ship north to her new life as a commissioner’s wife in Vardø — a life for which she is not in the least prepared.
Completely incapable of even the simplest household tasks, let alone a more or less self-sufficient life, Ursa asks Maren to help to build bridges to the women of Vardø, and together they become observers of another storm that is unleashed on the island: the brutal persecution of those suspected of sorcery and witchcraft, and the hysteria caused by fear of it among the members of the community.
© Tom de FrestonThe author, Kiran Millwood Hargrave: a poet and novelist, best known for her children’s books
Life in Vardø is governed not so much by governance and leadership, be it of the King, in far-away Christiania, or his Lensmann, in Vardøhus, but by the weather and the sea. Vardø is a self-contained community, and yet the outside world has begun to make its mark on it, not merely in the form of some trading for necessities which the residents cannot produce themselves, but chiefly in the form of the kirke. Although the kirke is well established, and attended by most of the women, it is here that divisions in the community begin to take hold.
Although the Norwegian women of Vardø attend kirke, there are also the Sámi, “a segment of the local population, endemic . . . in Finnmark — a transient community termed Lapps. They are somewhat akin to gypsies, but their magicks deal in wind and other weather.” They move around the land without possessing it, and have their own traditions and practices, not yet reined in by the kirke, for which there is, from time to time, a need.
A community of women without men needs to be kept under control by whatever means. Initially, the Lensmann sends a new pastor to take over the kirke, and to preach to the women, but he proves unable to command respect; so a commissioner, Absalom Cornet, is sent. He has already taken part in a witch trial, and, as his unsuspecting wife finds out, was involved in the death of the victim. It is gaining this knowledge about what her husband is capable of which will confirm and strengthen Ursa’s disgust with the man who forces himself on her.
Christianity does not appear in a good light in The Mercies; it is something that remains essentially alien, and has little to offer by way of light or hope. Practices of folk religion, once deemed to be at best superstition, and at worst witchcraft, to be punished by death, are perhaps not part of life in a modern urbanised society. But the desire to control, to create boundaries — between genders, different groups of people, or even nations — remains, as does the need for encounter in order to survive.
And there is the need to remember the women of Vardø, those who died accused of witchcraft; and this, too, is part of the story of northern Europe and of Christianity.
Dr Natalie K. Watson is a theologian, writer, and editor, living in Peterborough.
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave is published by Picador at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-1-5290-7507-6.
Listen here to Natalie K. Watson in conversation with Sarah Meyrick in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature.
Tickets are now on sale for the 2023 Festival of Faith and Literature next February, at the University of Winchester and Winchester Cathedral.
THE MERCIES — SOME QUESTIONS
- “. . . with you and a small number of God-fearing men, we can beat back the darkness even in the ever-dark of winter. Even here, at the edge of civilization, souls must be saved.” Are the actions of the Lensmann and his commissioners in the name of the King a form of colonialism? Are they justified?
- What do you make of Toril, Sigfrid, and the other kirke women? What do you think is their motivation?
- Maren is an astute and often shrewd observer of her community. Do you agree with her comment about witchcraft? If it is true, why then do the Lensmann and Cornet feel the need to eradicate those involved in it?
- “Absalom Cornet. It sounds like a prayer, and more like a knell.” How would you describe Cornet? What are the characteristics of his relationship with Ursa? Does their relationship change?
- How does the relationship between Maren and Ursa develop? How does it end?
- Is The Mercies a feminist novel?
IN OUR next Book Club page on 6 January, we will print extra information about our next book, The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land by Omer Friedlander. It is published by John Murray Press at £14.99 (£13.49); 978-1-399-80394-6.
The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land is a collection of 11 short stories. They are all set in modern-day Israel, transporting the reader to the lush orange groves in Jaffa, the arid Negev desert, and the narrow alleyways of Jerusalem. The stories are set against the Jewish/Arab conflict, but the focus remains on the individual characters with their own tales of love, heartbreak, loss, and strife. The title story is about a con man who tries to sell empty bottles of “holy” air to tourists. Another is about the kidnap of a Holocaust survivor for a school “show and tell”. And a third concerns an Israeli volunteer at a West Bank checkpoint, who is mourning her son killed in Gaza. This collection of short stories by Omer Friedlander has been described as “fairy tales turned on their head by the stakes of real life”.
Omer Friedlander is a young Israeli-born writer who now lives in Brooklyn, in New York City. He was born in Jerusalem in 1994, and grew up in Tel Aviv, before studying English Literature at the University of Cambridge. From there, he continued his studies in the United States, and achieved an MFA from Boston University, supported by the Saul Bellow Fellowship. His writing has achieved global success in Canada, France, Israel, and the US, and his short stories have won many literary awards, including first place in the Baltimore Review Winter Contest, and the Shmuel Traum Literary Translation Prize.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
February: The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir
March: Tall Bones by Anna Bailey