Given that we’ve all been transfixed by the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s a definite market for ‘Handmaidesque’ dystopian novels at the moment; Gather the Daughters is one such. If I were to pitch it, I’d describe Jennie Melamed’s debut as Handmaid’s Tale meets The Crucible with a hint of Lord of the Flies.
The story begins in spring, Vanessa is in school, daydreaming:
When Letty reaches back to scratch a shoulder blade and drops a note on her desk, Vanessa jolts into the present. Using her bitten nails to pick open the small package, she reads:
Do you think it was her first time?
Half an hour ago, Frieda Joseph burst into tears while trying to spell “turnip”. They weren’t tears of frustration, but big dry, gulping sobs like she’d been punched in the throat.
Vanessa lives in an isolated and mostly self-sufficient island community – only the group of men, the wanderers, may leave the island via a ferry to the wastelands as the mainland is known. We’re not sure at the start of the novel of its ‘when’ – it feels stuck in a pre-industrial era but simultaneously a post-apocalyptic time. The community is totally patriarchal and run on kind of new puritan lines on a series of commandments known as the ‘Shalt nots’ laid down by their ‘ancestors’:
Thou shalt not disobey thy father.
Thou shalt not enter another man’s home uninvited.
Thou shalt not raise more than two children.
Thou shalt not touch a daughter who has bled until she enters her summer of fruition.
Thou shalt not allow thy wife to stray in thought, deed, or body.
Thou shalt not allow women who are not sister, daughter, or mother to gather without a man to guide them.
Thou shalt not kill.
The story is told by a handful of the daughters of island families. The fate of these prepubescent girls is to be married off and pregnant as soon as they reach their ‘fruition’ – you can guess what that is. Our young narrators are all approaching puberty; Janey is one of the oldest. She has been starving herself for years to prevent her periods from starting.
Before then, the girls appear to have a measure of freedom, especially during the summers, when all the kids roam wild over the island, camping on the beach, often running around naked and coated in mud – until the first frosts come. The girls so look forward to these weeks, a sort of tween version of the Amish Rumspringa. Such freedom comes at a heavy price though for the girls as you can infer from the ‘Shalt nots’.
They are all scared and questioning of their community’s customs. Then at summer’s end, one of the girls witnesses something that goes against everything they’ve been told by their fathers. The girls find ways to share the information forming a secret sisterhood. Dare they fight back? Dare they try to escape their fates?
The community in this novel feels profoundly out of time, regressed to a sort of Puritan society after the rest of the world has mostly perished. Women are totally repressed and being a daughter is also having to submit to the rules.
Vanessa is slightly different to the other daughters due to the things her father, a wanderer, brings back from the wastelands:
All wanderers are also collectors. How could they not be, wading through the detritus of civilization past? Each wanderer family not only inherits a pile of treasures, but adds to it each time the wanderer visits the wastelands. … Father, like all Adams back to their original ancestor, brings back books.
That’s not to say that Vanessa necessarily understands more about the old world because of the books, but she does have a wider imagination through them. Jennie Melamed, gives us some tantalising glimpses of the world outside the island and seen through the distorted lens of the girls’ lack of knowledge, it gently raises the suspense.
As we go through the year of the novel, I kept hoping that the girls would start to fight back sooner, but it took rather a long time to get going in that regard, I could have done with a slightly faster pace in the earlier sections. Gather the daughters is an ambitious debut that has atmosphere aplenty and a group of great characters in our young narrators, but, there is a nastiness at its heart that was so depressing that I felt there was little hope, leaving me a little conflicted. I didn’t enjoy it as such – you couldn’t really, but you could cheer the girls on to assert themselves. (8/10)
Source: Review copy – thank you.
Jennie Melamed, Gather the Daughters (Tinder, 2017) hardback, 352 pages.