Gather the Daughters
Dystopian novels are a dime a dozen these days, but Jennie Melamed’s début novel, Gather the Daughters, is anything but typical. Centering around a cult with some fascinating, if problematic, views about women and the societal roles they should occupy, it’s a powerful story of courage, filled with identifiable characters who face unimaginable hardships. As someone who has always been fascinated by cults, it was a natural choice for me to review.
When society as we know it fails and most of the world disappears into a burning wasteland, ten men and their families flee to a desert island. They form a fanatical religious group that revolves around ancestor worship. Women are second-class citizens, their every thought, word, and action controlled by men and aren’t even allowed to meet in groups without a man present as a chaperone. The one exception to this rule is childbirth.
Once a girl enters puberty, or ‘Fruition’, her sole purpose is to bear children. Each couple is only allowed two children, so the young women pray to give birth to sons rather than daughters who will live lives of horrible degradation.
No one, save a select group of men known as Wanderers, ever leaves the island. The Wanderers go out in search of artefacts from the Wasteland, but little of use is ever recovered. There are a few books, but they’re not available for most people to read, there is no electricity or technology and knowledge is said to come from a religious text known as ‘Our Book’ which is believed to have been written by the ancestors of the current group of island residents.
Ms. Melamed weaves a compelling and disturbing story, told from the perspectives of four of the island’s young women. Vanessa is the thirteen-year-old daughter of the Wanderer in charge of the island’s books. She sneaks glimpses of them, spurred on by her burning curiosity about life off the island. Seventeen-year-old Janey is a rebel, determined to do everything in her power to stave off her Fruition. She eats almost nothing and constantly challenges the authority of her father and the other men. Fifteen-year-old Amanda is newly married and pregnant with her first child. Her mother loathes her and her father loves her way too much. She longs for a different life, but doubts things will ever be different for her and those around her. Caitlyn is one of the only people to have once lived in the Wastelands. Granted, she doesn’t remember anything about it, since she was only two when her family took up residence on the island. Her father is a mean drunk who abuses her and her mother, and the family isn’t well-respected.
When Caitlyn sees something the Wanderers are intent on keeping secret, the lives of the daughters are irrevocably changed. Janey starts a revolution of sorts, in an attempt to give the island’s young women a voice. Unfortunately, things don’t work out at all how she hoped they would, and the entire group is forced to deal with consequences more devastating than anything they could have ever imagined.
This is the kind of novel that will grab hold of you and not let you go until you turn the final page. The world Ms. Melamed has imagined is vastly different from anything readers have experienced, but echoes of our own society are hard to ignore. The subject matter may be disturbing to some readers, as incest is a pretty commonplace occurrence; it’s not graphically described, but it’s obviously happening. I was deeply troubled by the assertions of several characters that a daughter’s duty was to submit to her father in all ways including sexually. I know such things happen in real life, but Ms. Melamed has a way of hammering the point home, making it impossible to ignore.
If you’re looking for a book filled with women who seize their power and run with it, Gather The Daughters won’t be right for you. I don’t want to give anything away, but I think it’s important for people to know they shouldn’t go into this expecting a happy ending. This novel is very powerful with a great deal to recommend it, but I think you’ll do much better with it if you don’t expect it to be something it isn’t.
This is a story that’s bound to appeal to fans of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a profound examination of women and their place in the world. It’s anything but an easy read, but it is sure to leave you with a lot to think about, and, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, that’s exactly what good fiction is supposed to do.