Norway 1617, the town of Vardo. Maren Bergensdatter and Diinna are just two of the women who have made their way through the slashing rain to the edge of their island to watch a terrible, colossal storm raining down havoc and destruction on the little fishing fleet caught in the middle of it.
Maren and the other women are not aware of the consequences that this storm is going to have on the lives of their island town. As the storm subsides, the women observe the detritus rolling in towards them on the waves.
“The women of Vardo gather at the scooped-out edge of their island, and though some are still shouting, Maren’s ears ring with silence. Before her, the harbour is wiped smooth as a mirror. Her Jaw is caught on the hinges of itself, her tongue dripping blood warm down her chin. Her needle is threaded in the web between her thumb and forefinger, the wound a neat circle of pink. As she watches, a final flash of lightning illuminates the hatefully still sea, and from its blackness rise oars and rudders and a full mast with gently stowed sails, like underwater forests uprooted. Of their men, there is no sign.
The women of Vardo don’t know it yet but every man of the fishing fleet has drowned, including Maren’s father and brother. Her brother was Diinna’s husband and his loss is felt by both women.
There used to be fifty-three males living in the town, now there are thirteen. Two are merely babies, three are elders, and the rest are young boys who were too young to be out with the fleet.
Superstition is rife. The women start looking for answers as to what caused this tragedy. The storm abnormally strong and swift. They talk of signs that suggested this was going to happen, a tern, a whale swimming upside down, signs that the women should have noticed. The devil himself is blamed for the storm and the loss of their men.
Then the talk inevitably turns to leaving. The women have relations and family in other towns. Serious talk and consideration bandied about of leaving to the larger cities of Varanger and Tromso. Cities a good distance away. It is finally decided that they will wait for word from Kiberg, which they expect will arrive by boat now the storm has dispersed.
Diinna is of the indigenous Sami people. Charms, talking to spirits to appease the weather, vital for a fishing population, is simply their way of life. Maren’s father was a noaidi, a shaman, a mystic. Many from the town would come to him for charms and trinkets, protection from the sea and foul weather. However, King Christian IV is a strict Lutheran and times have changed, and laws have been brought in by the church banning such acts, although the pastor would normally let such things pass, turning away as if not noticing. Christianity has taken hold here and there is bad blood between the Christians and the Sami, who they consider pagans that follow the old ways. The narrative now jumps to 1619, Bergen, which is in the southwest of Norway, almost as far away from Vardo, which is way up in the north, as you can get. Ursa has no choice in the husband she is to marry, she does not even get to see him before her father has agreed happily to the marriage. Commissioner Absalom Cornet has come all the way from Scotland and his marriage proposal is a simple sentence uttered to Ursa and her father, “I am in need of a wife”. Commissioner Cornet has been sent from Scotland under the orders of Lensmann Cunningham to ostensibly stamp out all heathen presence and activity from Vardo. Ursa’s father is, if not euphoric, then ecstatic, that his daughter will be marrying a man in such a prestigious position. Ursa’s feelings, well they hardly matter do they. When the Commissioner leaves Ursa watches him from an upstairs window and thinks,
“Absalom Cornet. It sounds less like a prayer, and more like a knell.”
Ursa has no idea how prescient this thought will turn out to be.
Absalom and Ursa set sail for Vardo, where Lensmann Cunningham will meet up with them.
On the long sea voyage to Vardo, Ursa comes to see her husband’s true side and realises that she is trapped with no chance of escape. Upon overhearing her talking to the captain in Norwegian, Absalom becomes quite angry with her, he then asks the captain of the ship to teach him Norwegian.
“Ursa feels a noose slip about her neck. Soon she will have nowhere to hide, not even her mother tongue. She excuses herself early, leaves them talking in the lamplight. She feels, once again, quite alone.”
When the ship finally pulls into Vardo the women are all there to witness the arrival. Maren thinks that the last time all the women were gathered here together like this was the night of the storm, the night they lost the men.
It is Maren who runs back to get Ursa a coat when they make land and an instant connection is formed between the two as Ursa thanks her.
There is an almost ominous feeling shrouding over this initial landing, and the weather, as if in agreement starts to rain.
A little later, when Absalom publicly addresses the women, he tells them that, “Too long you have been left here without guidance. I am here to offer it, and I must ask you to be vigilant.”
A dramatic statement that has a forbidding feeling attached to it.
It does not take long for Maren to realise that Ursa is floundering in this new way of life and has no idea about the things that the women of Vardo find basic and rudimental. Marlen takes it upon herself to help Ursa, and a strong bond of friendship is formed between the two.
These two characters who come from the two extreme ends of their country, come from lives that are universes apart, become closer and closer as each day passes. Are their feelings passing over the line of friendship? What will happen if Absalom finds out?
Then the Lensmann, who Absalom has been waiting for finally arrives, and the true, horrible purpose of Absalom’s appointment to Vardo becomes painfully clear!
To think that this book is based on a real event and real characters is chilling but not surprising. We have inflicted horror upon horror upon ourselves throughout our brief history. Looking at the world today, I would like to think we have moved forwards a little. We certainly don’t burn “witches” at the stake anymore, but do we tolerate beliefs that are not our own? Do we persecute those who choose a different faith? A different style of life? Will we ever truly change?
This wonderful novel will be published by Little Brown and Company in February 2020. Thankyou to them and Netgally for the ARC.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave is an award winning poet, playwright, and author.
Her books include the bestselling winner of the British Book Awards Children's Book of the Year and the Waterstones Children's Book Prize 2017 The Girl of Ink & Stars, and Costa Book Awards- and Blue Peter Awards-shortlisted The Island at the End of Everything, and The Way Past Winter is forthcoming in October 2018. Her debut book for adults, The Mercies , based on the Vardø witch trials, will be published by Picador in early 2020.
She is represented by Hellie Ogden (UK) and Kirby Kim (US) at Janklow & Nesbit. Kiran lives in Oxford with her husband, artist Tom de Freston, and their cat, Luna.