Gather the Daughters, by Jennie Melamed, is a dystopian novel that rings all too possible in a world ruled by zealous men. Set on an island, the exact time or place never specified, it revolves around a community whose elders, the wanderers, ensure that no knowledge of the world beyond may be shared. Rules are rigidly adhered to, the aims of the founding fathers both cherished and feared. Impropriety is viciously punished by family or, at worst, public shaming.
Within this community the girls are required to submit to their fathers and then husbands, willingly and with grace. They know of no other way to live. Each summer the children are allowed to run free, a break from the rigidity of their community life. For the girls this annual freedom ends as soon as they bleed. Marriage is mandatory once they can conceive.
Each girl may bear a maximum of two healthy children; defectives are not permitted to survive. Once children have borne children the grandparents drink a final draft. Those who can no longer contribute are deemed a burden and join the victims of childbirth or disease, becoming fertiliser on the farms.
The wanderers bring goods from outside, referred to as the wastelands, but no other islanders may leave. They are told stories of fire, plague and desolation to instil loyalty and fear. Few openly question how items that appear wondrous can exist in such a barren land. Those who do ask are ignored, persistence silenced.
The story follows a group of girls who dream of changing how they must live. Such a lack of willing submission will not be tolerated by the men who benefit.
Vanessa Adams knows that she is nearing her first bleed. She is fond of her father despite what he does with her, what every daughter must submit to. Mr Adams is a wanderer, proud of his status and the good house where his family reside. He permits Vanessa to read the books he has collected from the wastelands and commends her intelligence. She is eager to know more of the world beyond their island but cannot pierce the veil of secrecy that enables this way of life.
Amanda Balthazar is married to Andrew and expecting their first child. Desperate to get away from her father she had looked forward to this stage in her life. When she is told that the child growing in her belly is a girl a sense of dread descends from which she struggles to emerge. The idea of a beloved daughter having to submit to a father, which her kind-hearted Andrew will soon become, is more than she can bear.
Janey Solomon is older than the other unmarried girls but has starved herself to prevent the bleeding. She does her best to protect her younger sister, Mary, but despairs that she cannot keep her safe forever. It is Janey who arranges an illegal gathering, getting the island girls together in an attempt to make them question the truth of all they have been told to keep them compliant. She suggests that another way is possible and perhaps exists elsewhere.
These three girls set in motion events that will shake the community to its core. The hopelessness of their situation resonates, the sickening righteousness of the men as they guard their all-powerful positions evocative of many religions.
The writing is taut and engaging even though the content is deeply disturbing. I had no idea how these girls’ stories would end, and I needed to know.
A powerful, dark tale of the powerless attempting to assert themselves; a warning to women everywhere of the compliance some men still crave. Although challenging this tale is unreservedly compelling. The issues raised linger beyond the final page.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.