#7 (2020) Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed

I returned to fiction for my seventh read of the year. I can’t remember how I came across Gather the Daughters, but it was on my wishlist so I added it to my last library order. I still haven’t quite got used to being a member of a public library, and being able to order books in from anywhere in Ireland makes me feel a bit giddy with glee! Anyway, on to the book…

On a small isolated island, there’s a community that lives by its own rules. Boys grow up knowing they will one day take charge, while girls know they will be married and pregnant within moments of hitting womanhood.

But before that time comes, a ritual offers children an exhilarating reprieve. Every summer they are turned out onto their doorsteps, to roam the island, sleep on the beach and build camps in trees. To be free. 

At the end of one of such summer, one of the younger girls sees something she was never supposed to see. And she returns home with a truth that could bring their island world to its knees.

As suggested by Stylist magazine on the cover of the book, Gather the Daughters has the post-apocalyptic flavour of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (well worth a read if you haven’t yet taken the plunge.) The community living on the island believe that the ‘wastelands’ beyond have been destroyed by fire and disease. Island life is primitive, patriarchal, and misogynistic, rooted in fear of upsetting ‘the ancestors’ and going to hell. Women are wives and mothers, nothing more.

That said, I enjoyed the world that Melamed created. It was vivid and believable, and the narrative was convincingly told through the voices of a number of young women on the island. There were flares of rebellion and feminism and I felt emotionally invested in the lives of the characters from very early on. Melamed created a strong sense of time and space, which was heightened as the novel progressed through the four seasons.

On the fifth day of summer the mosquitos come sudden like the rains, except instead of falling from the sky, they rise up from the ground. In veils of humming gold they sweet the landscape, falling to feed from anything with blood in its veins. (Pg. 97)

On the whole, I really enjoyed Gather the Daughters, but I have a gripe with part of the narrative where I felt that Melamed went too far. This is going to be a bit of a spoiler, although there are flavours of this theme from early in the novel. If you’d rather not know, don’t read on. I won’t be discussing anything else after this point.

Spoilers below

An addition to the misogyny and general sense of women being worthless, Melamed adds a facet that I found unnecessary and distasteful. One of the key ideas in the novel is that once the girls on the island hit puberty, they have a summer of ritualistic courting and sex with the boys of a similar age, and then settle on one to marry. Inevitably, a child soon follows and the cycle continues. However, before the girls hit puberty and begin menstruation, it is acceptable (and expected) for their fathers to molest/rape/abuse them. And this just sat ill with me. I didn’t feel that the book needed it, and while it contributed to some of the character development I thought that Melamed took it too far. The fact that the abuse/rape is alluded to rather than graphically detailed doesn’t reduce the bad taste left in the mouth by this particular facet of the novel. So, proceed with caution and an awareness of this aspect of the story.