Monday 19 March 2018

Tale of oppression and control makes for lyrical, vivid debut

Patriarchy: Jennie Melamed's novel is set on an island where women are oppressed
Patriarchy: Jennie Melamed's novel is set on an island where women are oppressed
Gather the Daughters

Tanya Sweeney

By their very nature, islands are secretive, with their own traditions, argot and communities. But there's something about the island that Janey Solomon lives on that's a different story entirely. By turns mysterious, insular and parochial, this is a society with its own laws, a world away from the nearby war-torn mainland (or the Wasteland). The inhabitants live in a theocracy where they worship their ancestors (their surnames are the names of their ancestors, 10 of which discovered the island: Solomon, Jacob, Aaron) and live entirely off the land. The men hunt, farm and carve; the women tend to the home and family. It's a traditional rural society devoid of technology or outside influence (though seemingly set in contemporaneous times, or at least after the publication of Salman Rushdie).

The families have only been living on the island a couple of generations; some of the elders recall the corruption, diseases and horrors of the mainland. In the main, though, they are sheltered from the outside world. One young girl, Vanessa, discovers a life beyond the parameters of the island via the books her father brings home from the Wasteland.

Yet this is no ordinary, gentle life; far from it. Despite the community's best efforts, the population remains low. Birth defects are common, as are deaths during childbirth.

When healthy boys are born on the island, the women in the community that come to watch the birth are jubilant. When a healthy girl is born, the women cry en masse; a collective mourning.

And for good reason: girls are second-class citizens, submissive to their fathers. They reach 'fruition' when they get their first period, and are forced to marry and bear two healthy children of their own soon after. A Summer of Fruitation sees the young girls sent off to find a likely partner. It can be traumatic, but elders are on hand to give special drinks to girls to help them relax.

"(Janice) was first to lie down under one of the men, giggling and hiccupping, her eyes glossy and dark," recalls Amanda. "The girls, talking to the other men, were too embarrassed to watch outright. They threw quick, fascinated glances to the rutting couple, while the men shifted and stared and stepped a little closer to the girls they were looming over. A couple of the girls found the act of love repulsive and submitted with the stiff, resigned faces of old women shouldering a heavy load."

Infertile women are not useful on the island, and neither are the couples who are old enough to have grandchildren. In fact, these couples take the 'final draught' and die together. Ironically, children are the ones who are allowed to roam free in this highly prescriptive society.

At 17, Janey Solomon has staved off her fruition with an eating disorder, and she makes for an unsettling presence. Stony-eyed with flaming-red hair, even the male leaders on the island find her disquieting. Other young girls - Amanda, Vanessa, Caitlin - appear resigned to their fate as chattel, or at least don't think to question it. Because of the young girls' obedience, their devotion to their families, their adoration of their fathers, life on the island, for all its horrors, is placid. But it's not long before they start to question their indoctrination and the status quo is upturned. Yet even a rebellion isn't straightforward, and those who defy the island's traditions start meeting a grisly fate.

Gather The Daughters is a read that initially simmers rather than scorches. Running initially at a languid pace in keeping with the supposed quietude of the land, it takes a while to drop into the action. But Melamed is a master of the delicious drip-drip of detail. Amid the surface idyll of the community, the shocking, awful horrors gradually start to unfold.

Told from the perspectives of each of the four girls on the cusp of fruition, the voices start to run into each other, making it initially hard to get a grasp on life on the island. Is this by accident or design? Is it a way to convey the prescriptive mindset of the island? It's hard to tell. And depending on how conclusive and neatly sewn one likes their endings, Gather The Daughters may leave some readers wanting.

It's almost impossible to not call to mind The Handmaid's Tale, another dystopian drama with women held as sex slaves by men, ostensibly for their own good, at its core. Like Margaret Atwood's 1985 classic, Melamed's characters are held in position by a patriarchy so sinister and cruel that it almost beggars belief.

The atrocities that happen on the island - the oppression of women, the aggressive controlling at the hands of men - are happening somewhere in the world, and this is perhaps the most unsettling thing of all. It may not make for an easy read, but Gather The Daughters is an assured, lyrical and vivid debut.


Gather the Daughters

Jennie Melamed

Tinder Press, hbk, 352 pages, €19.99

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