The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
(Picador, 2020)

The Mercies

by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

She sank down into the rocks until she stood at the bottom of the sea. The night was dark and moonless, stars scarring the surface, and she drowned and came up gasping, smoke in her nostrils and at the dark back of her throat. The taste of burning fat caught under her tongue, and would not be washed away.

Beneath the sunken sun on Christmas Eve 1617, where Finnmark, Norway, scatters into its northernmost islands, twenty-year-old Maren Bergensdatter watches the sea break into a sudden and reckless storm. Forty fishermen, including her brother and father, are drowned and left broken on the rocks below. With the menfolk wiped out, the women of Vardø must fend for themselves.

Three years later, beneath a midnight sun, a sinister figure arrives in Vardø. Absalom Cornet comes from Scotland, where he burned witches in the northern isles. He brings with him his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who is both heady with her husband’s authority, and terrified by it. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa sees something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God and flooded with a mighty and terrible evil.

As Maren and Ursa are pushed together, the island begins to close in on them with Absalom’s iron rule threatening Vardø’s very existence.

Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1620 witch trials, this is the story of love, evil, and obsession, at the everdark edge of civilisation. For readers of Burial Rites, The Miniaturist and Wolf Winter.


A gripping novel inspired by a real-life witch hunt. Hargrave's prose is visceral and immersive; the muddy, cold life and politics of a fishing village leap to vivid life. But her most vital insights are about the human heart: how terrifyingly quickly prejudices can turn into murder, and how desperately we need love and courage to oppose it. Beautiful and chilling.”
- Madeline Miller, author of Circe
The Mercies took my breath away. A beautifully rendered portrait of a community, a landscape, a relationship, I read it with equal parts hope and dread. Kiran has masterfully built up an incredible claustrophic atmosphere, shot through with delicate intimacy. On finishing it I pressed the book to me, hoping to absorb some of her skill.”
- Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl with a Pearl Earring
A book not only for our times but for any time in which people have loved and raged and wondered if there was more. Millwood Hargrave is a whirlwind, storm-building talent.”
- Daisy Johnson, author of Everything Under
I can’t stop thinking about this book. I am awed, overwhelmed, destroyed. It is one of the best books I’ve ever read.”
- Elizabeth Macneal, author of The Doll Factory
With her characteristic tenderness and prose that tides between the carnal and the sublime, Kiran Millwood Hargrave illuminates one of the darkest chapters of our history. In The Mercies, she sweeps us to a place that dazzles and reeks and chills to the bone, where the hearts of women roar louder than storms. She is an outstanding talent, and wherever her imagination sails next, I will follow.”
- Samantha Shannon, author of The Bone Season
Passionate, stirring and conveying a terrifying atmosphere of claustrophobic oppression, Hargrave’s gripping tale of courageous women facing overwhelming odds is helped along no end by the vividness of her bleak island location and her depiction of the dynamics of a God-fearing fishing village as opposing factions struggle for control. ”
- The Herald
Historical fiction fans looking for a Handmaid's Tale-style twist will love this novel ... A story of danger, love and power - with Big Offred Energy.”
- Cosmopolitan
The Mercies is among the best novels I’ve read in years. In addition to its beautiful writing, its subject matter is both enduring and timely. ”
- New York Times
This is a powerful story that gathers ever more momentum as it moves towards its conclusion.”
- The Sunday Times
Kiran Millward Hargrave’s wonderful The Mercies is a mesmerising, heartwrenching novel which had me desperate for the women of Vardo to win through. A perfect book club choice”
- AJ Pearce, author of Dear Mrs Bird