BOOK REVIEW: Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed

BOOK REVIEW: Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed

Tinder Press
July 2017
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Fiction

8/10

Never Let Me Go meets The Giver in this haunting debut about a cult on an isolated island, where nothing is as it seems.

Years ago, just before the country was incinerated to wasteland, ten men and their families colonized an island off the coast. They built a radical society of ancestor worship, controlled breeding, and the strict rationing of knowledge and history. Only the Wanderers–chosen male descendants of the original ten–are allowed to cross to the wastelands, where they scavenge for detritus among the still-smoldering fires.

“From the fires of wickedness we grew forth, like a green branch from a rotten tree,” he reads. “From the wastelands of want came the hardworking men of industry and promise. From the war-stricken terror came our forefathers to keep us safe from harm.” Like everyone else, Vanessa mouths the words along with him. “From the cleansed and ravaged dust of the scourge came the flowerings of faith and a new way. With the ancestors to guide us, we will grow and prosper on a straight and narrow path. O ancestors, the sanctified first ten, plead with God on our behalf, and save us from impurity. Amen.”

The daughters of these men are wives-in-training. At the first sign of puberty, they face their Summer of Fruition, a ritualistic season that drags them from adolescence to matrimony.

The girls had discovered the power they had, the power to make men crawl and beg. They could say yes or no and the men would listen; they could play with them like pets or puppets. The men wanted to please their future wives, make them desire their strange male bodies with swelling muscles and heavy, dark, almost comical genitalia.

They have children, who have children, and when they are no longer useful, they take their final draught and die.

Janet Balthazar has had two defectives, born blue and slimy and dead like drowned worms in a puddle. If she has a third defective, she won’t be allowed to have any more babies. Her husband, Gilbert, will be encouraged to take another wife. Occasionally, women choose to take the final draft rather than live childless. Pastor Saul likes to commend those women.

But in the summer, the younger children reign supreme. With the adults indoors and the pubescent in Fruition, the children live wildly–they fight over food and shelter, free of their fathers’ hands and their mothers’ despair.

A few mornings Vanessa participates, not only because she loves sweets, but because she loves the fury of dragging at arms and legs with bare hands, punching slick faces, leaping over bodies to grab a handful of frosting. She eats more mud than cake, but it’s sweet with rich crumbs, and sometimes salty with blood from a split lip.

And it is at the end of one summer that little Caitlin Jacob sees something so horrifying, so contradictory to the laws of the island, that she must share it with the others.

“Think of the women who’ve disappeared, the women who were odd or blasphemous, maybe they got shamed and it didn’t change them at all. Think about it. How many men mysteriously disappear? Just drop dead, without anyone seeing them die?”

Born leader Janey Solomon steps up to seek the truth. At seventeen years old, Janey is so unwilling to become a woman, she is slowly starving herself to death. Trying urgently now to unravel the mysteries of the island and what lies beyond, before her own demise, she attempts to lead an uprising of the girls that may be their undoing.

Janey’s not sure how long she can go without coming to fruition, but she hopes it’s forever. She can’t imagine herself with a husband, cooking dinner, looking up into a man’s face, or lying with her legs spread apart, screaming a new life into the world. Just thinking about it makes the world darken a few shades. Never. Death first.

Gather The Daughters is a smoldering debut; dark and energetic, compulsively readable, Melamed’s novel announces her as an unforgettable new voice in fiction. 

 

The moment a blurb mentions the word “cult”, I am in. 

Unfortunately, so often these books are a letdown. They cover the same ground over and over again, or they handle things in such an unrealistic way as to really challenge the reader’s suspension or disbelief.

Gather the Daughters, while producing a story that doesn’t exactly break the mold (at least when it comes to books about fictional cults), presents a scenario and characters that are so well-built the reader can’t help but cheer these girls on, while at the same time worried about reading of their potentially terrible fates.

Melamed – who has experience working as a psychiatric nurse with traumatized children and has researched anthropological, biological, and cultural aspects of child abuse – brings her knowledge to this literary-style cult novel, which isn’t so much about the plot as the way the cult affects the girls as they go through the different stages of womanhood on their male-dominated island.

The only major qualm with this novel was that it could be confusing to tell which characters were related two which other characters, and in what way. Perhaps this was intentional on Melamed’s part, to show readers just how mixed up and inbred the bloodlines had become (as also evidenced by the high numbers of defective births), but it doesn’t make it any easier to form a full image of the people on the island or even how many of them there really are. This could have been helped quite a lot with a family tree at the start or end of the novel (or both!), so that readers would have the option to familiarise themselves and check back if they grew confused in the course of the reading.

All in all this is a bleak and worrying scenario, delivered in such a way that readers are able to figure out some of what’s going on before anyone comes right out and says it. Melamed handles these delicate situations in a way that stops the writing from being distasteful, even while discussing distasteful events. 

But it’s not just about the cult or the island. Gather the Daughters is more about these girls who, though raised to be kept under the thumb, despite being raised into these awful conditions with these awful things treated as “normal”, still manage to find a backbone, rebel, and make it known that they’re not okay with what’s going on. 

Even if there’s no clear way for them to get off the island, or any proof that there’s anything beyond their island, anyway.

 

 

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed

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