The Mercies

Little, Brown. Feb. 2020. 336p. ISBN 9780316529259. pap. $27. F
Christianity arrived late in northern Scandinavia, and in the early 17th-century vestiges of Sami pagan beliefs still abound. When nearly all the men from a small Norwegian fishing village drown in a freak winter storm and the women who remain manage to survive on their own, newly pious ministers of the crown suspect witchcraft. Spurred by Protestant leader King James of Scotland, who authored a witch-hunting screed called Daemonologie, a few of these ministers make their way to the village to rout out and try likely suspects. The novel is told in the voices of two women who are drawn together by both necessity and physical attraction: Maren, a native of the village whose sister-in-law is Sami; and Ursula from refined Bergen, the young bride of a cruel government minister. Ursula is unprepared for life in the rugged North, and her sadistic husband cares only to advance his career through witch trials.
VERDICT The latest from Hargrave (The Deathless Girls) is slow paced and deliberate, as if dreading its own unhappy denouement. It’s strength lies in the richly researched details of primitive Norwegian village life, which illustrate how the women scrape a livelihood from the barren subarctic. [See Prepub Alert, 8/1/19.]

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