In Finnmark, Norway in 1617, a sudden storm strikes out of nowhere one day, killing forty men in the small fishing village of Vardo. This represents almost all the men of Vardo and in the months following the women left behind must figure out how to survive. For some this means taking on the roles of the missing men. For others it means turning to mysticism or religion. When a new commissioner is station in Vardo, brought all the way from Scotland, life changes drastically for the women, culminating in a dramatic trial for witchcraft.
The trial, however, is not the heart of the story here. Instead we have two young women, Maren and Ursa. Maren is a lifelong resident of Vardo, living with her mother and her sister-in-law after her brother and father are killed in the storm. Her sister-in-law, Diina is a Sami woman, increasingly divided from the rest of the community, particularly those who turn to a fanatical version of Christianity.
Ursa is the young wife of Absalom Cornet, the new commissioner. Having decided he should wed a Norwegian woman, Cornet finds Ursa in Bergen and brings her with him to Vardo, far from everything and everyone she has ever known. Hoping for love, she finds instead an increasing brutality in her husband as she learns of his past and what he is capable of.
Maren and Ursa are quickly drawn together. The development of their relationship isn’t a surprise but Hargrave does well at bringing it along in a natural and yet compelling manner. The narrative goes back and forth between Maren and Ursa and this provides two very different viewpoints of the community and both characters. Hargrave also excels at the physical descriptions of Vardo and the land that these characters survive in. Harsh and relentless, cold and dark for much of the year, and yet with a haunting beauty.
Based on true events, I greatly enjoyed this historical novel that delved into a story I had never heard before. As I said, the witchcraft trial, while important to the story, isn’t at the centre of the novel. Religious divides and changing attitudes and how they can cause people to grow in fear and hatred are though and those are stories that are timely to this day.