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Lit Review: ‘The Mercies’ by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

After having conquered the world of children’s fiction, British novelist Kiran Millwood Hargrave sets out to make her mark in adult fiction with The Mercies, a historical novel that throws into sharp relief the struggles of women forced to live their lives dictated by men, and the perils of self-righteousness.

The novel is based on the witch trials that took place in 1621 in Vardø, Norway, where more than 91 women as well as Sámi men were found guilty of witchcraft and put to death. At the site today stands a memorial by Louise Bourgeois and Peter Zumthor to mark the tragedy which itself is the the main catalyst of Hargrave’s novel.

At its heart, The Mercies is about the complex lives of women told through the lens of two very different women, Maren and Ursula, or Ursa. The novel begins on Christmas eve, 1617, in the remote fishing village of Vardø, where a sudden, ferocious storm claims the lives of 40 fishermen out at sea, leaving the women of this tight-knit community reeling in shock and horror. Among them is Maren, whose betrothed, brother, and father all perished in the storm. In the following months, led by the feisty Kirsten, Maren and the women take on tasks that are usually the purview of men, such as going out to sea to fish. Even though it is a matter of survival, Pastor Kurtsson (who was sent to shepherd the community after the tragedy) and a few of the women disapprove and deem it improper for a woman to do. Kirsten, Maren and et al carry on, regardless, and the women thrive in their new reality without their men.

The narrative then switches to Ursa, a well-bred young woman from the city of Bergen in the south who is made to marry a man chosen by her father, the sanctimonious Absalom Cornet. He has just been appointed the new commissioner of Vardø, and the couple set off for the north soon after the nuptials. Ursa is ill-prepared for her new life as wife to a man who has little regard for her other than in the bedroom, and is also helpless at keeping house having grown up with servants. She turns to Maren for help, and Maren on her part finds herself irresistibly drawn to Ursa. The two soon become inseparable.

Meanwhile, the commissioner’s true purpose for being appointed to Vardø is made chillingly clear: he is to root out witchcraft and all who practise it. Some of the women in the community, namely those who were opposed to Kirsten and her taking charge, are only too eager to help Cornet along and take it upon themselves to condemn the other group of women, leading to devastating outcomes.

“[Maren] had thought she had seen the worst from this harbour, thought nothing could rival the viciousness of the storm. But now she knows she was foolish to believe that evil existed only out there. It was here, among them, walking on two legs, passing judgment with a human tongue.”

Parallels can certainly be drawn with what we see in today’s “witch hunts” that often take place on social media. With a fervour fuelled by self-righteousness, keyboard warriors draw conclusions based on suspicion and scant knowledge, and proceed to hang the accused out to dry, confident of their judgment. The Mercies is a timely caution against this treacherous path that is all too easy to tread, and the harm it causes.

Hargrave has written a surefooted novel that, while a bit draggy in parts, makes for an absorbing, if sobering read. In an interview with Kirkus, the author reveals that she did not want to focus on the violence of the trials but on the lives of women. She says, “I’m always quite queasy when I read a witch trial book because it does feel voyeuristic, and it does feel like you’re luxuriating in the violence being done to women. I’m also interested in how you get to that stage and I wanted the propulsion to come not through these kind of unimaginable acts [of violence], but through very imaginable acts.”

Verdict: The ending feels a bit rushed but the solid main characters and intriguing story more than make up for it. (7/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM79.90

Special thanks to Pansing Distribution for an advance review copy of the book.

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Books on love and its many guises

It is both surprising and not that love continues to remain such fertile territory for scribblers: after all, we are nowhere closer to understanding what this emotion is although we would be hard-pressed to find anyone who can truly claim that they feel not its impact. Whether it be love romantic or platonic, worldly or divine, sui generis or populous, love is perhaps the emotion par excellence describing the tension that exists between the wants of our inner and outer lives. Those of us lucky enough to succeed in aligning the conflict are truly blessed, and those of us who are not must continue the struggle. But for both, there are always books on love to read.

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende (RM79.90)
Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent exodus of Spanish refugees to France and Chile, this sweeping, majestic new novel by Chilean author Isabel Allende explores love in many guises: love for one’s country, for your fellow humankind, and for music and poetry, but also carnal love and the kind borne out of deep mutual respect and trust for another person. The story centres on Victor Dalmau, a young medical student fighting on the Republican side at the start of the novel and who eventually has to flee the country. He ends up in Chile, together with his dead brother’s pregnant girlfriend, Roser Bruguera, who agrees to marry Victor out of convenience. As the years go by, they build their lives — he as a successful cardiologist, and she as a renowned musician — and raise Marcel, Roser’s son, together. But when the Pinochet dictatorship unseats Chile’s Marxist president in 1973, they find themselves once more endangered by their political views. Allende’s storytelling prowess shines through with wonderful characters and a truly engaging story that feels timeless, yet perfectly on pulse with today.

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry (RM75.90)
Longlisted for the 2019 Booker prize, Night Boat to Tangier is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Irwine Welsh’s Trainspotting and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Graham Swift’s Last Orders. In a sentence: Night Boat is a story of two former conmen, past their prime, waiting at the port of Algeciras for a daughter who may or may not appear — a daughter lost to them owing to their turbulent past coloured by fast money and fast drugs — and who while away the time in heavy nostalgia and reverie through dialogue interspersed with Joycean banter poised always on the edge of a knife. And yet, through it all, love remains the grounding theme, be it a love of self, the romantic love of an Other, the parental love of a child, or the platonic love between friends. Night Boat is a wistful read that navigates between remembering and forgetting.

Calligraphies of Love by Hassan Massoudy (RM62.90)
What happens when you combine timeless love poems from masters including Ibn Zaydoun, Rumi, Kahlil Gibran, John Keats and Paul Eluard together with the art of master calligrapher Hassan Massoudy? You get Insta-poetry at its very best, and the way it ought to be done. No more slapping together a wistful black and white photo of a cigarette burning down to its filter with a few lines enjambed willy-nilly: “Time / is like / a / Cigarette / it burns / down / and / kills / You.” Instead, we have Massoudy’s beautifully stylised Arabic calligraphy, which has been exhibited throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and is housed in the permanent collections of the British Museum and the Jordan National Gallery. His signature strokes and vibrant colours reifies immortal verse such as Augustine’s — “The measure of love is to love / without measure” — in brush art that vibrates with spirit and meaning.

Impractical Uses of Cake by Yeoh Jo-Ann (RM45)
Singapore-based Malaysian author Yeoh Jo-Ann’s Impractical Uses of Cake won the Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2018 and is the story of one Sukhin Dhillon — wealthy, handsome and eligible. However, he has completely given up on life, and spends most of his time dodging uncomfortable questions about matrimony. Quite content with his lot in life, he bumps into the past when, one fine day, he stumbles upon his ex-girlfriend Jinn who has now become a homeless vagrant. Feeling sorry for her, they rebuild their bond over their shared fondness of cake, and thus begins a shared journey together of discovery and rebuilding. Overall, Impractical Uses Of Cake is refreshing and perhaps a less than conventional love story.

Where the Crawdad Sings by Delia Owens (RM49.90)
This debut novel by Delia Owens topped the American bestseller list for over 44 weeks. Part bildungsroman and part crime drama, Where the Crawdads Sing is the story of Kya, known in her town as “Marsh Girl” because she grew up in a shack in the marshes of North Carolina. Abandoned by her family, she is forced to fend for herself but nevertheless manages to survive and thrive despite the challenging conditions. She eventually attracts the attention of two men in town, but she becomes the prime murder suspect when one of them turns up dead. While much of the book is about Kya’s resilience, it is also a book about love, companionship and forgiveness. It doesn’t hurt that there a thrilling denouement to the murder mystery awaits in the wings.

This article appears in the February 2020 issue of FireFlyz, the in-flight magazine of Firefly airlines.