Vardø. An island in north eastern Norway where at Christmas the sun never rises. Cold, forbidding and bleak.
1617. twenty-eight years after James I and VI accused witches of summoning a tempest to kill his betrothed, Anne of Denmark. A year and a half after Shakespeare’s death. Eleven years after these lines in Macbeth were first performed. .
First Witch Where hast thou been, sister? Second Witch Killing swine. Third Witch Sister, where thou? First Witch A sailor's wife had chestnuts in her lap, And munch'd, and munch'd, and munch'd:-- 'Give me,' quoth I: 'Aroint thee, witch!' the rump-fed ronyon cries. Her husband's to Aleppo gone, master o' the Tiger: But in a sieve I'll thither sail, And, like a rat without a tail, I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do. Second Witch I'll give thee a wind. First Witch Thou'rt kind. Third Witch And I another. First Witch I myself have all the other, And the very ports they blow, All the quarters that they know I' the shipman's card. I will drain him dry as hay: Sleep shall neither night nor day Hang upon his pent-house lid; He shall live a man forbid: Weary se'n nights nine times nine Shall he dwindle, peak and pine: Though his bark cannot be lost, Yet it shall be tempest-tost. Look what I have. Second Witch Show me, show me. First Witch Here I have a pilot's thumb, Wreck'd as homeward he did come.
Millwood Hargraves’ novel is extraordinary. Set in such a specific place and time, her writing manages to be both wonderfully vivid and present, and powerfully urgent and pressing, and carefully philosophical.
The book opens with a natural catastrophe which destroys the fishing fleet of the island and kills essentially all the men. Maren
did not look up until the bird or the sound or the change in the air called her to the window to watch the lights shifting across the dark sea.
Her arms crackle: she brings one needle-coarsened finger to the other and pushes it under her woollen cuff, feels the hair stiff and the skin beneath it tightening. The boats are still rowing, still steady in the uncertain light, lamps glimmering.
And then the sea rises up and the sky swings down and greenish lightning slings itself across everything, flashing the black into an instantaneous, terrible brightness. Mamma is fetched to the window by the light and the noise, the sea and sky clashing like a mountain splitting so they feel it through their soles and spines, sending Maren’s teeth into her tongue and hot salt down her gullet.
Faced with this tragedy, Maren and the remaining women including her Mamma, her sister-in-law Diinna who is a member of the Sámi, the resilient and practical Kirsten Sørensdatter and the embittered Toril Knudsdatter and the others grieve and manage to retrieve their husbands and fathers and sons, hauling them up the cliff and back into the village. And what this novel does in terms of making each and every one of these characters compelling and credible and authentic is breathtaking. In their triumphs and strengths, in their weaknesses and pettinesses, these women are vital and breathing characters!
The storm – an historical reality – is the touchstone of change in the village. Traditional rules, roles and rituals, traditional division of labour and taboos are called into question by the simple practicalities of survival in an incredibly bleak landscape. Women donned trousers, took over the slaughter and husbandry of reindeer, went fishing in the seas; traditional Sámi rituals provide a comfort in the immediate aftermath where the Christian Church remains dark, even on Christmas Day and poppets, runes and runestones collect on the women’s hearths.
Millwood Hargrave is so good at depicting the growth from despair to fortitude, loss and grief to remembrance and resilience in these opening chapters. The emotions and connections within the village rise and fall and swell and deepen like the ocean itself as a new status quo develops.
Maren feels an uneasy rhythm take hold of Vardø, her time finding shape. Kirke, boathouse, housework, sleep. Though the lines are beginning to be drawn more starkly between Kirsten and Toril, Diinna and the others, they pull together as men rowing a boat. It is a closeness born of necessity: they need each other more than ever, especially as food begins to scarcen.
And when the women head out onto the sea, in their dead husbands’ boats and sealskin coats,
With the boat secured and nets down, something close to joy spreads through them. Magda laughs at the swooping birds and this brings an echo to Maren’s own mouth. They fall silent almost as fast, but something has lifted. They slouch back into the curves of the boat and share their meals between them. The clouds sweep aside and though she can’t feel its warmth, the sun is starting to redden Maren’s nose. She feels tired and happy, and does not think of the whale at all.
And this could have been a tale of that fortitude, of the innate human capacity to survive in the face of horrors, to find healing and tenderness and satisfaction and joy.
But neither history nor Millwood Hargrave allow that and the novel shifts again as Commissioner Cornet and his newly wed wife Ursula – Ursa – are brought to Vardø. Because there is nothing more intimidating and dangerous to the patriarchy than a group of independent women surviving. Surely, this could not be possible, without assistance and support. With their arrival, the nascent bonds between the women become strained again, divided and suspicious: Christian turning on Sámi members of their community; more devout – fanatical – Christians turning against more pragmatic ones.
The very opening lines of the novel set the tone: this is a story about narrative and control of narrative because he (yes, that pronoun is a deliberate choice) who controls the narrative wields all the power:
The storm comes in like a finger snap. That’s how they’ll speak in the months and years after, when it stops being only an ache behind their eyes and a crushing at the base of their throats. When it finally fits into stories. Even then, it doesn’t tell how it actually was. There are ways words fall down: they give shape too easily, carelessly. And there was no grace, no ease to what Maren saw.
Was the storm a freak accident of weather with “no grace, no ease”, a tragedy borne of no more than natural elements – a whale startling a shoal of fish; practical fishermen keen to fill stores for the long dark winter? Or was it a result of weather-weaving dark sorceresses ridding themselves of their husbands? When Commissioner Cornet arrives, the narrative of the storm and of the women’s survival is wrenched and twisted into something far darker.
Ursa and Maren come to alternate their points of view as they grow ever closer: Ursa is the daughter of a (struggling) shipowner, cloistered with her sister Agnete with her compromised lungs and legs, unprepared for married life, for sex, for the brutality of life on Vardø; Maren, the local, suspicious and cynical of this outsider. But the smallest actions – the loan of a coat, teaching Ursa how to make flatbrød and sew – build a tender and wonderfully depicted trust and friendship between them… and something more intimate than that.
For me, Ursa was a much less compelling character than Maren, but it did not detract from that wonderfully touching relationship and love.
Witchhunts and witch trials are familiar enough to us as an audience that Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett can mock them in Agnes Nutter’s execution in Good Omens – as can The Simpsons – and Arthur Miller can turn them to that potent if somewhat obvious metaphor for McCarthyist suspicions in The Crucible. They retain that powerful symbolism here, although, Millwood Hargrave roots the trials she depicts viscerally in the physical and literal as well: this is a novel about people the how their terror, their fears and suspicion, their capacity for violence. And Millwood Hargrave’s powerful writing makes the final third of the book difficult to read: without being graphic in the descriptions, she is very vivid. And has made us care for and love her characters so much!
Even Commissioner Absalom Cornet was a surprisingly nuanced character: he was at times vulnerable and weak – childlike in his desperation for acceptance and recognition – which made his zealous excitement at the prospect of a witch trial all the more terrible. Hidebound and inflexible, and so excited by the prospect of violence that Ursa can “can feel it sloughing off him” he was a chilling and terrifying antagonist. And, goodness the power of the word “sloughing” there… it is awful, isn’t it? A potent, visceral metaphor to unsettle the heart.
His superior, the Lensmann himself was equally terrifying:
His eyes are shining. Though he speaks to Absalom, his gaze is fixed upon her. He looks possessed, and Ursa has a sudden terror he will throw himself across the table at her, grip her about the throat and squeeze and squeeze. But he only slumps back in his chair, motions for his wife to pour another glass.
None of the others seem to notice they are caught in this room with a bear.
And the ending! Oh my goodness the ending! I don’t think my heart has recovered yet!
Here we have a novelist at the height of her powers, bringing a distant place and time vividly and presently into life – taking me out of the Easter sunshine and into the chilling world of Vardø so effectively that I felt the cold and the dark through the power of her words alone. It is an extraordinary and breathtaking piece of writing which leaves only one question: why has it not been listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction?
Consider reading this if you enjoyed
- The Miniaturist, Jesse Burton
- Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
- The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters
- His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet
Plot / Pace:
Date: 6th February 2020