The Witches of Vardø by Anya Bergman: A vibrant, brutal and inspirational read – book review –

Whilst many history books and fictional dramas have retold the harrowing tales surrounding the 17th century witch hunts in Britain and Salem, few outside Scandinavia know of the very real and terrible events on the remote island of Vardø in Finnmark in northern Norway.
The Witches of Vardø by Anya BergmanThe Witches of Vardø by Anya Bergman
The Witches of Vardø by Anya Bergman

Between October 1662 and April 1663, a total of twenty women were imprisoned and died as a result of the witchcraft persecutions.... eighteen were burnt at the stake and two were tortured to death.

Using the court testimonies of some of those caught up in this witch trials maelstrom, and blending historical fact with magical realism and vivid Nordic folklore, debut author Anya Bergman brings us an epic, atmospheric and moving novel about prejudice, misogyny, and a group of strong, determined women who refuse to surrender their souls to the cruelty of men.

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At the heart of the story are three compelling women who, in their very different ways, have failed to meet the rules and expectations of femininity set out by witch-hunting religious zealots, and face the wrath of both state and church.

In the small fishing village of Ekkerøy on Norway’s Varanger Peninsula in 1662, women must be careful about what they say and do at a time when drinking alcohol, having ‘a sharp tongue’ and even dancing can lead to accusations of witchcraft.

Local fisherman’s widow Zigri Sigvaldsdatter has never been the same since the death of her husband and beloved only son Axell. She neglects her daughters, Ingeborg, aged sixteen, and twelve-year-old Kirsten, and is often seen smiling and laughing for wealthy merchant’s son Heinrich Brasches.

The two girls feast on Brasches’ gifts of food, grain and spices while their mother ‘disappears’ for hours, but her behaviour is placing them all in danger and when her affair is discovered, Zigri is sent to the fortress on the forbidding island of Vardø to be tried as a witch.

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Unable to accept they will never see their mother again, Ingeborg sets off into the wilderness to try to bring her back home. With her on this perilous quest is the outcast Maren Olufsdatter, a distant relative who is said to be the daughter of the notorious witch of Vardø, Liren Sand, and a pirate from the Barbary Coast.

Maren has ‘strange ways’ but her wild nature and unconquerable spirit give Ingeborg the courage to venture into the unknown, and to risk all she has to save her family.

Meanwhile, another captive in the fortress at Vardø is 47-year-old Anna Rhodius, once the King of Denmark’s mistress, who has been sent in disgrace to the island. Anna has brought her most treasured possession – a medicine chest full of herbs and tinctures – and is already making an oath that she will not be a martyr, ‘accepting, mute or humble.’

Imprisoned in a place of cold, hardship and misery, Anna longs to return to her old life of riches and privilege and can see only one way of getting back... accusing her fellow women prisoners of being witches. Can she do it and if so, who will she betray in this place where the world ends and Hell begins?

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What a vibrant, brutal and inspirational read The Witches of Vardø proves to be as Bergman – who based her characters on some of the real women who faced unspeakable suffering in the wilds of northern Norway – gives these forgotten names from the past a powerful and resonant voice in the present.

It’s a tale filled with passion and power, conviction and cruelty, strength and female resilience in the face of a terrifying age of when just being a woman could bring male suspicion, danger and the constant threat of betrayal.

Weaving together real history, an enticing thread of magical realism, some fascinating Norwegian mythology, and rich, enthralling descriptions of the fierce, freezing and unforgiving landscape, Bergman places her readers firmly at centre stage of this chilling, thrilling story.

And as their journeys unfold, their battles fought, and their fates revealed, these three remarkable women are allowed to finally retell their stories... and reclaim their lives.

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Haunting, harrowing, and yet ultimately uplifting in its empowerment of women determined to hold on to their dignity, independence and freedom, and find justice, The Witches of Vardø is in the starting blocks for one of 2023’s most impressive debuts.

(Manilla Press, hardback, £14.99)

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