When a book is compared to the likes of The Handmaid’s Tale, Our Endless Numbered Days, The Power and The Girls (yet to actually read this last!), you know it’s highly likely to be something you would want to read. This praise is made all the more impressive by the fact that this is the author’s (Jennie Melamed) debut novel! So, naturally, when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of the book before its publication date, I was thrilled.
Gather the Daughters tells the story of a ‘small isolated island’ where the community lives by their own rules. Daughters are born into a world in which they must take their place as wives and mothers, something which must happen as soon as they approach womanhood. Boys, on the other hand, are there to instruct, to grow into strong men who rule the women in their lives. Ever summer this island honours its ritual, one in which the children are turned out of their homes to run wild. They are free; free to run, to climb, to fight. Free to be children. Yet it is during one such summer, that a young girl is witness to something she should not have seen. Terrified by this, and by what it could actually mean about the island, the girls begin to give reign to their curiosity, lead down a path which they never thought existed.
You might wrongly think upon starting this, as I myself did, that it is going to be told in a first person narrative. Instead, we have a novel which follows multiple perspectives, all of which are female, all of which are fairly young in age. I think the author manages to captivate these voice very well. I felt that the thoughts and opinions of the girls were well suited to their ages, whilst also open to the tensions arising from the conditions in which they have been brought up. Through these voices, we follow the girls as they not only mature physically over four seasons, but also emotionally, divulging to the reader everything which occurs along the way. Additionally, I thought it was excellent that the author did not shy away from giving us certain voices in particular when there are events will later unfold and shock us (readers will understand).
The book as a whole managed to sustain a very dystopian feel to it throughout. We learn as we read on about the ‘Wastelands’, a world which have been ravaged by a momentous event, leaving only those on the island safe and secure albeit without the advantages of modernity. As I think you may be able to gauge from this premise, there were many instances of very classic dystopian themes and tropes at first which did make me slightly nervous. I feel that this genre of novel is becoming increasingly popular, and as such originality is ever more difficult to achieve. Having said that, even the parts which I did feel were quite similar to what has come before were still well written and engaging. From this the novel pans out, moving from character to character with our scope growing wider as we learn more of the intricacies of the island and its inhabitants. For me, this was really when the novel began to take off, moving away from the quite stereotypical tropes and traveling into the realms of a uniquely dark read.
Obviously one of the themes which completely dominates this novel is the gender ideologies, in this case taking the form of an exceptionally rigid patriarchy. Again, I don’t think that by itself this is a particularly unusual concept (Handmaid’s Tale, Only Ever Yours), but when it is supported by the other ideas in the novel it really moves into a much more enjoyable, albeit more uncomfortable, read. The Island worships, not God, but the Ancestors, the originally members who first travelled and created the Island. At one point we are told how Pastor Saul’s favourite subject is talking about women; ‘it gets him more worked up than anything’ (p. 17). He preaches to the community, reminding them of the commandments set in place by the Ancestors and what they mean. For example, he declares that ‘When a daughter submits to her father’s will, when a wife submits to her husband, when a woman is a helper to a man, we are worshiping the ancestors and their vision’ (p.17). In this community, women are conditioned to become highly subservient, truly believing that this is the way of the world and what they are born to do. Men on the other hand, must be ‘good shepherds’ (p. 18), guiding the women along the correct path. Although these are only small instances, you can begin to gather a sense of the Island’s incredibly rigid patriarchal structures, and the gender ideologies which dictate the roles each sex must take. As the novel increases, this is only heightened to darker, and all the more deplorable, depths.
Although I wouldn’t say the main purpose of this community is their religion and worshipping of the Ancestors, it is an important part, and one which naturally made me think about certain types of cults and how religion specifically can be mutated and used advantageously. The use of the religion which the Islanders follow is eerily reminiscent of the fevered passion with which people can devote themselves to alarming cults and causes. Part of the commandments of the Ancestors reads that ‘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’ (p. 20). Although disguised within their religion, these rules are clearly intended to control the women, and so it is interesting how many people within the community have become so indoctrinated that they do not question such absurd and dramatic rules. Likewise, many of the women born on the Island actually know no other way of life.
I cannot talk about this novel without mentioning the horrific and sickening ideas surrounding sexual activites. Whilst I think the novel works quite cleverly to make clear suggestions as to what really goes on in the Island without being too explicit, some instances are much more graphic. Fifteen is described as a good age for a girl to have her first child, a highly disturbing idea within our own communities and a marker of the twisted nature of the Island. Yet, the realities of the Island only serve to become more sickening than this. Young girls are paired up with much older men, to marry, have sex and populate the Island. The sexual abuse is rife, and fertility something which is deemed a ‘valuable asset’, making it worth ‘never quite knowing who fathered your oldest child’ (p. 73).
Yet far worse than this is the continued suggestions of incest and sexual abuse conducted by fathers on their daughters before they have even reached what the community thinks of as maturity. What I found really harrowing was the way in which the author explores the normality of this for the children who have only ever experienced life on the Island. Even then, some of the young girls can sense the wrongness of what they are doing, talking of the ‘love that felt . . .wrong’ and ‘Mother hating me, blaming me like it was my fault! (p. 103).
Personally, I think the hardest part of this novel was following the actions of the characters that willingly made the decision to leave the rest of world and travel to this Island, or following those who know the rest of the world still exists. Mr Adams in particular was a very troubling character. This man knows that the actions of the Islanders are not socially exceptable in a normal society, yet he indulges in such a horrific way of life despite this. Yet, to make things more complicated, we are given instances where Mr Adams is almost shown to have morals, and to love his children despite what he is doing to them. I found him to be a highly unsettling character, and I can’t help but wish that we had been given the chance to have seen more from his own twisted perspective.
This society, as is highly obvious, is extremely cruel. This is fiercely evident in the way we learn about the ‘defective’ babies who are born with deformities because of the nature of the reproduction on the Island. One such babies is ‘quietly placed facedown in a bowl of water while its mother cried’ (p.133). These graphic details of birth are no secret to the young girls, who are dragged to the birthing from infancy to prepare them for what they must one day do. Whilst the birth of a boy is a joyous occasion, the birth of a girl is a vast contrast. Again, just with Mr Adams, I found this completely disgusting and fascinating to consider, as all the women know what this will later mean for that baby girl, yet they stand by let such atrocities occur. Not only do these women turn a blind eye to such things, but they actually aid the process in some cases, even when some of them realise that this society is a complete inversion of the rest of the world. A moment which even now sticks in my mind is when a you girl states she does not want to be a woman, and an adult women replies ‘My goodness, dear . . . as if you had a choice’ (p. 70). This blunt, resigned acceptance of their fate is heartbreaking. How a mother could ever allow such things to happen to their child is just too disturbing to consider.
The thing which stopped me from giving top marks to this book was sadly the ending. I did not think it was a bad ending, but it left me feeling very let down. It ends quiet abruptly, and I felt as if the whole novel had been building and building, steeped through with such dark undertones, to then rapidly plateau into the finale. Thankfully, the rest of the book was brilliant enough that the ending did not really deter my reading experience, and I would highly recommend this brilliant debut.
Without a doubt, I found this book to be a completely compelling read. This was not only because of the nightmarish subject matter, but also because of how the plot advances, drawing you into the lives of these girls and drawing out your instincts to protect them. I also found it extremely interesting to consider that this author is a psychiatric nurse practitioner who actually specialises in working with traumatised children. I dread to think of what might have inspired this book. All in all, a completely harrowing yet compelling read. The book is out on the 25th of this month, and I highly recommend it!
Publisher: Tinder Press
Disclaimer – I was lucky enough to have this book sent to me in exchange for a review. I will only ever post my own, honest opinions, and will NOT write a favourable review in exchange for a complimentary book.