book review: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

THE MERCIES by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Little, Brown and Co., 2020

This was a compelling read, a chilly and melancholy story about a fishing disaster and religious fanaticism in early 1600s Norway, buoyed by Millwood Hargrave’s elegant prose and deeply sympathetic characters.  The author’s attention to historical detail really shone through in her depiction of the village of Vardø, devastated by the loss of most of the male members of the community following a brutal storm; the surviving women then face yet more ruin following the arrival of Absalom Cornet, a Scottish commissioner tasked with spreading Christianity by witch-hunting suspected pagans in the community. 

My reading experience with this was all over the place – it was a 5 star book that dropped to somewhere around 2 or 3 stars by the end.  For me, this book felt like it was building and building toward an explosive climax, but instead sort of fizzled out – and I don’t just mean in the final scenes, which I know some readers took issue with; for me the entire final act sort of fell flat on its face.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but partway through a romance develops which didn’t materialize in a particularly interesting way for me – I thought it would have been a stronger and more interesting book without this element.  And while I of course loved the commentary on men fearing powerful women, at times this element felt a little too on the nose.  It’s not that Millwood Hargrave’s feminist agenda did a disservice to the book – certainly to the contrary – I just would have preferred a slightly defter touch.

That said, I did mostly enjoy reading this.  I think its biggest strength was the bleak, isolated atmosphere, which Millwood Hargrave captured to perfection.  (It reminded me quite a lot of Burial Rites in that regard.) I also thought Maren and Ursa were fantastic protagonists, each with a distinctive narrative voice. So ultimately, not a new favorite like I wanted it to be, but certainly worth a read.

10 thoughts on “book review: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

  1. Great review! I read this in March (which feels like a million years ago) and you’re spot on. I liked it but the ending definitely fizzled and I agree that the romance didn’t feel like it added what it wanted to. And Burial Rites is a great comparison!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oooh thank you that’s super validating to hear that you agree about the romance, because I almost wondered if I was being too harsh? I absolutely wasn’t opposed to it in theory, but yeah, the execution really underwhelmed me. It was a shame. But otherwise a pretty good book!

      Liked by 1 person

      • For me, I think it was the fact that you could have removed the romance entirely from the book and kept the friendship and nothing would have changed. I kept waiting for that shift from friendship to romance to advance the plot but it never did.

        Liked by 1 person

      • YES you hit the nail on the head! I think it’s partially that it didn’t advance the plot and partially that it didn’t advance the characterization – everything was the exact same, with added romance, which in theory is fine except that it felt like the book had been building to the romance, and if you’re going to structure it like that there needs to be more payoff; otherwise introduce the romance on page 50 and call it a day?!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Belated reply but I totally agree with you on the romance. Obviously I love anything sapphic, but it wasn’t really compelling and didn’t feel fully necessary.


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