Publication date: July 25th 2017
Initially, it’s difficult to tell the time period in Jennie Melamed’s novel, Gather the Daughters. It is life on an island with little in the way of modern conveniences—no indoor plumbing, no electricity, no weapons beyond knives and a limited food supply of grains and small animals. Later, we learn about “wanderers”, the “wasteland”, defective babies that die at birth, and husbands that can take another wife if their wife can’t produce healthy children. Still, is this a future? Or the past? The narrators, three young girls who haven’t reached puberty yet don’t provide many clues. It isn’t until the novel’s second chapter when vagueness turns to apprehension after learning from the island’s pastor
“When a daughter submits to her father’s will, when a wife submits to her husband, when a woman is a helper to a man, we are worshipping the ancestors and their vision.”
So…jumping right into patriarchal doctrine! Still, Melamed is wise and builds the tension in Gather the Daughters slowly. The heavy-handed religion is not too surprising, given the apparent sinfulness of the previous world. The first half of the novel is fascinating backstory about the island and its inhabitants. Creepy and weird, definitely, but Melamed holds off a little bit longer until the novel’s halfway point when she reveals the real foundations of this society. (I don’t consider sharing this a spoiler because it does not change the novel’s plot. But, if you like less-is-more book reviews, then suffice to say I recommend Gather the Daughters as great, escapist, dystopian reading. If you want more of my thoughts, read on!)
It’s been a long time since I read a novel that made me recoil, but, without violence or gore Melamed strikes at a visceral level. The island is built on societally mandated incest against little girls. It is one of the ancestors’ laws that from the time they are a small child every father is to have sex with their daughter. It’s difficult to even write this in the context of the novel because the correct terminology is rape. Unremitting rape, every night until the girl menstruates at which point she is handed off to a husband to breed. I can’t over-explain how repugnant reading this was because Melamed insinuates it so carefully into the plot. There are no overt scenes of violence, no disgust from any character. We learn everything through the three girls: Vanessa, Caitlin and Janey. Vanessa, whose father holds such an important position that she has access to books, something none of her friends have. Caitlin, who is newer to the island and its ways when she sees something she was not supposed to see. And seventeen-year-old Janey, who has determined that she will never grow up and so has been starving herself to avoid maturing. These girls are several generations in so there is no terror or revulsion, just resignation…because this is how things have always been.
Gather the Daughters is a novel built for discussion and lots of it. Not just about the morally reprehensible aspects of a fundamentalist, patriarchal society, but about the larger theme of repression in all its forms. The island exists thanks to ignorance. A systemic, multi-generational effort to root out and destroy any kind of knowledge or individual thought. Only the wanderers, the men who leave the island and go back to the wasteland, have any control. Whether there is anything out there or not is not questioned. For the modern day reader there will be nothing but questions, mostly because the only other option is complete disbelief. Well done, Melamed.