Christmas Eve, 1617, an extraordinary storm – almost supernatural – emerges from the Arctic Ocean and, “like a finger snap”, claims the lives of 40 fishermen of the island of Vardø in Arctic Norway. Their wives, daughters and betrotheds are left behind in the icy mid-winter dark. Maren, 20, her father, brother and fiancee drowned, is bothered by sinister dreams of a whales. Slowly the village women come together. They go fishing and – unthinkably – don trousers.
But in their grief, the women become fractious, seek blame. Inevitably they seek out those who are different, the Samí nomads, such as Diina, Maren’s sister-in-law, who the villagers turn to for medicine and spells. These fractures are inflamed further by the arrival of the Scotsman Absalom Cornet, sent by the king as part of a crackdown on witchcraft. Maren is drawn inexplicably to Absalom’s new wife Ursa, a naive city-slicker who has no idea what she has married into. Accusations are hurled, the village women are divided, flesh is burned, devilry purged.
Millwood Hargrave’s debut adult novel is based on the real religious crackdown that followed the passage of Danish-Norwegian King Christian IV’s 1617 sorcery decree. It is “concerned… with the conditions that make such things possible”. To that end, the novel investigates how a patriarchal society combined with fundamentalist religion leads to the murder of women. The religious characters in the novel get a glazed look in their eyes when they talk about witchcraft, as if they themselves are possessed. It is clear that the purge is all about power, setting women against each other, and consolidating and reinforcing that of the king, and by extension all men.
I enjoyed the themes and the icy setting, the unsettling midnight sun and gloom of winter but unfortunately I found some of the writing unconvincing, the characterisations too modern. Still, I’m glad this novel introduced me to a part of history I knew nothing about.
Gay rating: 4/5 for lesbian romance, sex and gender disruption.