#BookReview GATHER THE DAUGHTERS by Jennie Melamed
GATHER THE DAUGHTERS is an exquisitely written and strong debut novel about a dystopian society known as "the island." The island was settled generations ago by "the ancestors," ten families which fled "the wastelands" (the mainland) after some sort of apocalyptic catastrophe (possibly a nuclear attack). The families live strictly by the rules set down by the ancestors in "Our Book." This is in an agrarian community. Gender roles are very traditional: men do outside labor, women have children and take care of the homes. Most men are farmers, although others have professions such as tanners, carpenters, roofers, i.e. that which is related to keeping the infrastructure. Families are limited to having two children. Children attend school until puberty but there are scarcely any books nor much paper. Some of the men are "wanderers," men who go back to "the wastelands" to scavenge for materials.
Vanessa Adams, age thirteen, is the much-loved daughter of a wanderer, James Adams. James has a library which has been in his family since the ancestors first came to the island. Father (as Vanessa, and all children, address their male parent) permits Vanessa to read these books. Her mother also is a benevolent parent who dotes on Vanessa while ensuring she learns how to clean, cook and take care of the home. Vanessa is still at home because she has not yet reached her "summer of fruition," i.e. she has not started her menses. Vanessa has her own opinions about how life could be improved on the island, but she keeps them to herself. She is an obedient daughter. All the girls attend the labor of older women. Some women bleed out and die. Many of the babies are stillborn or "defectives." Most women hope to have sons.
"Vanessa once asked Mother why everyone cries for girls. It doesn't seem fair that boys are greeted with celebration, but everyone cried when she came sliding into the world on a river of salt and blood. Mother told her she'd understand when she was older."
Other girls on the island are not blessed with loving parents. Amanda, age fifteen, had her summer of fruition last year, and is married to Andrew, a gentle young man who loves Amanda. She is expecting their first child. Amanda's father was not kindly. Caitlin Jacob is beaten by her father regularly. It is spring, and the next season will be Caitlin's summer of fruition, when she will be paired with a young man, married and begin to have children. Janey Solomon, who is seventeen, has starved herself for years to prevent her menses from starting. She adores her younger sister Mary, and loves her father and her mother. Most of the children on the island, and the adults as well, are frightened by Janey's strong, determined personality. Janey does not want to have the life her mother and all of the other women have had. She dreams of life on other islands, life where women have control over their destiny. When something horrific happens to one of these four, the act sets in motion a series of events which will change life on the island forever.
Jennie Melamed's first novel is astounding.The novel explores violence against women (physical, sexual and psychological), women's reproductive rights, and restriction of women's rights in general in a skillful and straightforward manner. GATHER THE DAUGHTERS addresses the issue of girls being confined to the role of breeders without any freedom to divert from this role. Melamed's prose is beautiful and clear. The descriptions of the girls and of nature are particularly hypnotic. The novel is told in the third person, and each chapter is written from the point of view of Vanessa, Amanda, Caitlin or Janey. Each character is distinct and compelling. The pacing of the story flows synchronous with the plot. The girls are subjected to "the unspeakable" (my quotes), deeds and ways about which there eventually are frank and open discussions by the characters. Hopefully the novel will launch similar discussions among readers.
Other critics have compared this novel to THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood, THE GIVER by Lois Lowry and NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro. However, I think it better to liken GATHER THE DAUGHTERS to P.D. James's CHILDREN OF MEN, Nathaniel Hawthorne's THE SCARLET LETTTER, and Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery." This literary dystopian thriller is raw, savage, intense and magnificent. I very much look forward to Jennie Melamed's future works.
Thank you to the publisher for allowing me to read this novel through NetGalley. GATHER THE DAUGHTERS was published in the United States on July 25, 2017. GATHER THE DAUGHTERS UK