Desert Isle Keeper
Gather the Daughters
What if The Handmaid’s Tale took place in a separatist cult, ensconced on an island? That’s exactly what I think went through Ms. Melamed’s head while coming up with this novel. Gather the Daughters is a haunting tale of a society where women are controlled but children are free, and a young woman on the cusp of that transition discovers something that pulls her ideological foundations out from under her. It’s perhaps not for the faint of heart, but will definitely appeal to fans of engrossing dystopian fiction that lingers in the memory.
The nuances of the world the author has created are unravelled in rich and layered prose, and I am reluctant to spoil its discovery for potential readers. So while this review is not full of spoilers, I am at the same time hesitant to go into too much detail. But here are the things I think you should know before diving in.
Many years earlier, the world was tipping over into becoming a barren wasteland due to war, famine, apocalypse – your standard fare for dystopian set-ups. Taking a note from M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, ten men gathered their families and set out for a island off the coast of their country. Setting up their own religion, government, and way of life, the men crafted a society where the only purpose served by women was to bear and rear children. Breeding became carefully controlled; matches between men and women were political and did not always take familial genetic relationships into account. Contact with the outside world was only allowed through the founding fathers, who left the island for supplies on occasion and came back with tales to justify their fiefdom.
This is likely to sound particularly familiar to fans of dystopian fiction. (Notice how dystopian writers tend to talk about subjugation and control of fertility and women’s bodies as markers of totalitarianism? But this is a book review, not a symposium, so I’ll step off my soap box now…) What is different about this particular world is that children are allowed to take summers off from living in society and being civilised. They run feral and free on the beaches of the island, having the most wild of rumpuses. Boys continue the cycle until they are ready to marry, but for girls, this freedom is abruptly cut off at the first sign of puberty. At that point, they are married off and shoved into back corners to breed as quickly and frequently as possible.
The catalyst for this story is the catalyst for change. As in so many of these books, a young girl sees something she shouldn’t and is forced to make decisions. Can she be who she’s been raised to be? Or should she listen to her inner voices telling her that something is very wrong and the world as it has been presented to her is very broken?
I read Gather the Daughters in one sitting, veritably inhaling it as I casually let my household chores pile around me and my phone go unanswered. It has been a while since a novel wove itself around me so completely, not necessarily because it was suspenseful – although it was – but because it so thoroughly transported me to its world.
As I said in the introduction, this book is not for the faint of heart. It’s not graphic by any means, but there is no romance here. The moments of joy are hard fought and fleeting and I’d argue pretty vociferously that none of the sex in this book is truly consensual. It’s a novel that makes you thankful for independent thought, for ancestors before us who chose to engage with difference instead of run from it, for those around us who open homes and tables and create love instead of fear. It’s also beautifully crafted and eminently haunting. If you’re a fan of dystopian works at all, I beg you to consider Gather the Daughters for your next read. I don’t believe you’ll regret it.