Fiction – paperback; Manilla Press; 385 pages; 2023.
In the winter of 1662-63, a total of 20 women died during the witch trials which took place on the island of Vardø, located in the extreme northeastern part of Norway, far above the Arctic Circle. The women had been put on trial for “making pacts with the devil”. Eighteen of them were burnt at the stake and two were tortured to death.
Anya Begman’s novel The Witches of Vardø is a fictionalised account of what happened. The characters are inspired by real people whose experiences are documented in court testimonies.
In writing the book, the author, who lived in Norway for a time, says her purpose was to “raise the lost voices of the women accused of witchcraft with tenderness while invigorating their seventeenth-century history with contemporary resonance”.
I don’t tend to read historical fiction set earlier than the 19th century, so this novel took me right out of my comfort zone. It reads very much like a fable or old-fashioned tale, with lots of tell and not a huge amount of show, but once I got into the rhythm of the story (it’s a slow burn), I quite enjoyed it.
The narrative comprises two storylines told in alternate chapters from two different points of view. Both highlight the very real dangers of being female in a patriarchal society where men controlled every facet of a woman’s life, restricting them to domestic (and sexual) servitude.
Anna Rhodius, the daughter of a physician and a talented healer herself, was once the King of Denmark’s mistress. She has been banished to Vardø but she’s eager to return to her life of privilege and will do almost anything she can to go back to it, even if that means helping to prosecute other women for witchcraft.
Ingeborg Sigvaldsdatter is the teenage daughter of Zigri, a woman accused of witchcraft when her affair with a local merchant is discovered. Accompanied by Maren, another teenager whose mother has already been condemned as a witch, Ingeborg makes a long and treacherous journey to Vardø to try to rescue her mother who has been locked up in the governor’s fortress.
Anna’s story is told in the first person in a series of letters she addresses to the King, pleading to be reinstated in his eyes; Ingeborg’s is in the third person and takes a wider view, showing how her life was forever altered when her fisherman father and brother were lost at sea, leaving behind a wife and two daughters who were plunged into grief and struggled to find enough to eat.
Their stories are interleaved with folktales, including those of the Sámi people, and the mysterious appearance of a lynx with golden eyes.
The Witches of Vardø is a largely plot-driven novel that charts events leading up to and including Zigri’s trial.
It moves at a relatively slow pace and there’s a lot of detail (about Ingeborg’s journey and Anna’s past affair), which sometimes feels laboured. But the writing is atmospheric, chilly and Gothic by turn. The depictions of romantic love and the betrayals that can sometimes come with it are beautifully evoked.
Unsurprisingly, the witch trial that forms the climax of the novel is powerful and violent, but the aftermath, in which Maren and Ingeborg escape to lead lives of their own feels redemptive — and hopeful.
For another take on this novel, please see this review at Theresa Smith Writes.
A lasting memorial
Just to hammer home the point that the witch trials were a real thing, these photographs show the Steilneset Memorial in Vardø, which commemorates the 91 victims who were convicted of witchcraft and executed in Finnmark in the 17th century. A collaboration between the artist Louise Bourgeois and the architect Peter Zumthor, it comprises a 125m memorial hall (above) and a burning chair (below).
You can read more about the memorial at this Norwegian tourist website (note, it’s in Norwegian but you can translate it) or via this Wikipedia page.
This is my second book from the 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist. I am trying to read them all (there are five) before the winner is named at the end of May.