By Katy Goodwin-Bates
As I write this review, it’s two days since I finished reading Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters and I want to say that I’ve recovered emotionally: that I no longer involuntarily shudder at the thought of islands, or mud, or, you know, people. This would all be a colossal lie, however, because Gather the Daughters continues to haunt me and will undoubtedly continue in this vein for some time.
Melamed’s debut fits neatly alongside the recent Baileys Prize winner, Naomi Alderman’s The Power, and such legendary novels as The Handmaid’s Tale; indeed, I finished reading Gather the Daughters just before watching the fourth episode of the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic, which was probably the most terrifying way I could have spent my Sunday evening. Set on an island, almost entirely cut off from whatever remains of civilisation, Melamed’s novel introduces an altogether creepy society in which men rule and women accept marriage and motherhood as their lot in life as soon as they hit puberty. A chunk of Gather the Daughters takes place during summer, when the island’s children are let loose to run feral until the changing season forces them home; this year, however, one girl sees something that irreversibly alters the people of the island.
Flitting between the perspectives of four different girls, each at different stages of her immersion into this sinister patriarchal society, Gather the Daughters begins by slowly offering the reader an insight into the varying rituals of the community. It becomes apparent, for example, that, once their usefulness has been exhausted, the island’s residents take a “final draft,” and commit suicide. At one point, one young girl remarks that it’s surprising that a woman in her 40s is pregnant, as normally people that age are grandparents; this gives you an idea of the accelerated adulthood forced upon the island’s children. One ritual explained in plenty of detail is the summer of fruition, in which all girls whose periods have begun are deemed to be women, and forced into an intimate form of speed-dating which one can only hope no reality TV producer ever reads about, lest they see it as the natural follow-up to The Bachelor.
Sighing, Vanessa dips her fingers into the milk and presses them into the remaining cookie crumbs, making a paste. “Oh, and that Janet Balthazar is birthing soon, so we’ll be attending that. Probably in the next couple of days.” Vanessa winces. 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.
There’s a matter-of-fact tone to many of these revelations that belies the intensity of feeling, particularly among the daughters of the title; while most of the girls helplessly accept their fate (and, to be clear on this, their fate is genuinely horrific and I’m not even telling you the worst of it), there are those who rail against the system which seeks to suppress them. Vanessa, on the cusp of puberty, reads and asks questions, both of which are derided as not fitting for a woman, while Janey starves herself in order to postpone the inevitable physical changes which will force her into servitude. Amanda loves her husband but is horrified at the prospect of the child she carries enduring the same life she has suffered. Unusually for a novel in which chapters alternate between different characters, there is no character here about whom the reader can fail to care. It makes Gather the Daughters a deeply uncomfortable read, but a vital one.
There are a number of other factors which make Gather the Daughters so absorbing. The background to this odd society is hinted at throughout; frequent references to “the wastelands” and a “scourge” suggest the island’s inhabitants are among the last survivors of some form of apocalypse, but only a select few (men, obviously) have any firsthand knowledge of the mainland. Eschewing established religion, the island’s inhabitants live according to the “shalt-nots” of something called “Our Book,” which include such instructions as, “thou shalt not allow thy wife to stray in thought, deed, or body” and the more familiar, “thou shalt not kill.” Melamed feeds her reader just enough detail to fascinate and repel her reader, without committing to a full picture of the details; we know little more than the characters whose fate we read about from behind a cushion, and it’s unsettling but hugely effective.
Janey follows the ray into his mouth and then croaks, a strangled indrawn breath. She sees a carcass, a rot, obscene folds of flesh.
The ferryman has no tongue.
It is not a clean cut; half of his tongue was shorn at the stump, but a few trembling muscles bound by scarred flesh remain and twist dumbly, like a trapped, eyeless creature straining toward the light.
Chilling and unsettling, Gather the Daughters burns slowly to devastating reveals and emotional climaxes; it’s a novel worthy of comparison with The Handmaid’s Tale (yes, I compare everything to The Handmaid’s Tale, but not usually in a way that benefits the subject) in terms of its depiction of a firmly patriarchal and deeply disturbing society. It seems almost foolish to point out too that it is gorgeously written; there are slivers of beauty in amongst the horror, and it all adds up to a vital and shattering work of fiction.