On a small isolated island, there’s a community that lives by its own rules. Boys grow up knowing they will one day reign inside and outside the home, while girls know they will be married and pregnant within moments of hitting womanhood.
But before that time comes, there is an island ritual that offers children an exhilarating reprieve. Every summer they are turned out onto their doorsteps to roam wild: they run, they fight, they sleep on the beach and build camps in trees. They are free.
It is at the end of one of these summers, as the first frost laces the ground, that one of the younger girls witnesses something she was never supposed to see. And she returns home, muddy and terrified, clutching in her small hand a truth that could unravel their carefully constructed island world forever.
What I Thought:
Tinder Press is really becoming a must-watch publisher, with fantastic titles like Gather the Daughters popping up all over the place. My first response after reading this book was just ‘whoa’, and even after a little while to digest, it’s still difficult to articulate my thoughts on it.
Any book that starts out with an isolated cult is automatically bound to interest, but as the book unfolds and we learn more and more about this cult, the more sickening and distasteful it becomes. In the folklore passed down through the families, the country was burned to the ground, and ten families escaped to an island, living in a traditional way, and writing their own holy book governing how they live. At the first sign of bleeding, daughters are married, and are grandmothers by the time they are in their late twenties, expected to take their final draft when they are no longer useful.
What is not immediately clear, but that unfolds as you read without an explicit explanation, is that daughters are expected to ‘lie under their fathers’ until they marry, and then ‘lie under their husbands’.
The families all practice different skills and professions, with some being ‘wanderers’ who are allowed to travel back to the wastelands to trade, or bring in new families when they are needed to better the society, and it quickly becomes clear that they are not telling the rest of the families the truth.
The outlook for the daughters is bleak, until one autumn, Janey Soloman, a girl who refuses to grow up and marry, leads a group of girls to live on the beach. As each girl thinks more about what her lot in life is, and what it will go on to be, more and more join, discontent with being used as breeders and having no future to look forward to, but in a society controlled by the fathers, can the daughters ever hope to change anything?
The world in this book is so beautifully written, with the claustrophobic society reflected in the mean wooden house and endless mud of autumn. There is also a real sense of frustration – the only way to leave the island is by the ferry, manned by the ferryman, but no girls are permitted to go there – even if the girls can swim, where will they go? How can they ever change their lives?
Janey is a remarkable character, having the courage to try and write her own story while her entire society brands her as mad, leading the girls to go against their tradition while being unsure of herself as a leader. Vanessa is also an intriguing character, having the spark to have her own ideas, but still just a little too unsure to disobey her father.
This book is dark, and chilling, but it reveals the intricacies of the community at such a perfect pace, never explicitly saying ‘this is what’s going on’, but giving enough signposts for you to cotton on. It’s similar in many ways to The Handmaid’s Tale, but it is informed by real, clinical knowledge of psychology which makes each girl all the more real.
Note: I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are, as ever, my own.