This is a timely book. Not only does it hit the shelves at a time when the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale is capturing the ratings; it is also prescient in the light of what is happening to women in many countries across the globe.
Gather The Daughters is a dystopian novel – a dark and chilling story which takes place on an island ruled by a patriarchy. No-one is allowed to leave the island, save for the ten men who are deemed ‘the Wanderers’. These men look for others of a similar patriarchal mind in the ‘Badlands’ – the world outside; a world which most of the islanders know nothing about, but they do know that bad things happen there. Whether plague or pestilence, overpopulation and famine, or simply just rampant immorality, the inhabitants of the island have fled there to live the kind of life they yearn for.
This life is both hard and authoritarian. The children have never known anything different, so for them it is normal life. We learn from four young women what their lives are like and the hardships they have to endure. Even although they have known nothing else, there is still, in a few of these young women, an instilled sense that not everything is OK.
Nor, indeed, is it ok. Because this is a society where reading is severely frowned upon and where women are not only subservient to men, they are first ‘broken in’ by their fathers, but only up until they have their first period, because this is an island which already suffers from too much inbreeding.
Then, as they reach puberty, they are allowed one summer when they can run wild and enjoy themselves before the night when they are all brought together and the men each choose a girl as a wife and breeding mare.
These women will then go on to have children of their own – but as soon as they are to become grandparents, they will ‘drink the draught’ and end their lives. Overpopulation, with just 2 children each allowed, is not going to be a problem here.
Vanessa, Amanda, Caitlyn, and Janey are the four young women through whose eyes we understand life on the island. Janey is feisty, wild haired and rebellious. She is also deeply unhappy and has been systematically starving herself in order to delay the onset of her puberty. She is desperate to know anything she can about life away from their island.
Vanessa is 13 years old and has almost liberal parents, comparatively speaking. Her father is a Wanderer and over time he has brought back a library full of books which Vanessa loves to secretly read and which have given her a strong thirst for knowledge and an insatiable curiosity about the Badlands.
Amanda is 15, married and pregnant. She had to leave home because her father loved her too much to let her go, so marrying was her only escape.
Caitlyn was a baby when her parents brought her to the island, so she remembers nothing of her old life. But her father is a drunk and her mother a woman who couldn’t say boo to a goose.
When Janey leads the others to challenge everything they have been brought up to believe, the results could be catastrophic for more than one of the women.
This book works because Melamed is a strong and descriptive writer whose ability to create a realistic scenario shines through every page. She is able to portray the coming of age in these women and set it against the stark cruelty of which man is capable. Yet in the midst of a haunting and desperately sad story, there are glimpses of light from the human spirit which allows for a possible redemptive future. As a debut novel it certainly stands out.
I think if I hadn’t read the Handmaid’s Tale, I’d have been completely blown away. As it is, I think this is a strong and coherent story, excellently told. Jennie Melamed is an immensely talented writer.