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Female Dystopias

Jennie Melamed’s Gather The Daughters does of course inevitably remind the reader of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. This was such an extraordinary and shocking book at the time of its publication. Atwood had put no completely invented ideology into it; she sewed together trends, happenings and events from across history and geography. Atwood casts a long shadow, but Melamed, a psychiatric nurse practitioner who specialises in working with traumatised children, has clearly had her own professional experiences which have gestated this book.

Unfortunately, various world events – such as the kidnapping of young Chibok schoolgirls by Boko Haram and the democratic election of Trump, despite his ‘locker room’ boast of entitlement to grab and grope, not to mention the regular exposés of historic child abuse cases – sadly indicate that the need for writers to shock and warn us against any complacent thinking that the war for female equality and control over one’s own body has been won, is still a pressing one.

Melamed’s book is set in a possibly not far distant future, though it harks back to earlier, simpler times

Some cataclysmic apocalyptic world event has happened. Possibly. A small group of influential men have established a patriarchal, small island colony. Here, life is made secure and possibly viable, at least if you are one of the influential men. These rulers, The Wanderers, do maintain certain links with the Badlands, where some kind of plague, some kind of terrible devastation lurks. Occasionally, a new family will arrive on the island.

Harking back to some kind of particularly warped Amish style community, there are strict controls in place. These are mainly directed against women. Marriage happens remarkably early, within a year of the onset of menstruation. Life is also short, and once physical fitness is past early shuffling off of mortal coil is expected. There are also strictures on the number of children allowed. The powerful have devised ways to manage this, mainly through the indoctrination of a should and should not Holy Book, devised, as they so often are, for the powerful to keep others without power

Thou shalt not allow thy wife to stray in thought, deed or body. Thou shalt not allow women who are not sister, daughter or mother to gather without a man to guide them. Thou shalt not kill.

There is a brief, idyllic period set aside for the children. With rigid rules in place from birth till death, for all, and especially for the female all, a short summer season where children are allowed to run feral, live outside, and do as they please is a small time of wild paradise. Everyone knows the dark rules and the dark penalties for infringing those rules outside the brief summer escape. There is no other freedom of expression – except that resistance also, always needs to find ways and means.

Melamed tells this religious cult, island story through the voices of some of the girls. Janey is the oldest, the most dangerously subversive, starving herself in order to delay the onset of menstruation, marriage, motherhood. Amanda was her closest friend, but Amanda is now married and pregnant, her time of brief freedom and escape forever gone. Vanessa is daughter to one of the wanderers, the ruling elite; Caitlin the daughter of a particularly brutal man, not one of the especially privileged, though every man is privileged enough, in this society.

She discovers that grief is a liquid. It passes thickly down her throat as she drinks water and pools soggily around her food. It flows through her veins, dark and heavy, and fills the cavities of her bones until they weigh so much she can barely lift her head….At night, it rises up from the floor silently until she feels it seep into the bedclothes, lick at her heels and elbows and throat, thrust upward like a rising tide that will drown her in sorrow

Melamed recounts her quite horrific story with much delicacy and finesse. It is a spell binding story, a malevolent one, a warning one – and, unfortunately given the seeping violence of the times, wreaked by those who seek to turn back, in various ways, the freedoms women won during the twentieth century, a story one must hope is not, in any way, prophetic

I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine. It will be published on 25th July

Gather the Daughters Amazon UK
Gather the Daughters Amazon USA