Sometimes, a book seems to just capture the mood and Gather the Daughters feels like one of those books. It’s a book that’s unnerving and hard to pin down, but one that feels relevant right now- a gripping cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and Lord of the Flies, but with elements of the paranoia of The Hunger Games too.
A religious society lives on an isolated island, controlled by a group of men known as wanderers; these men are the only ones allowed to leave the island, to visit a place known as the wastelands- a place destroyed by war, disease and environmental disaster. Cut off from the world, the women on the island suffer a hard life as secondary subjects, brought up to be obedient from birth, pliant and available as wives, as taught by the ‘ancestors’, using biblical rhetoric to control the small population.
People are only allowed to have two children and are Children are allowed to run feral in the summer and young women marry at the end of their ‘summer of fruition’, after their period. This way of life remains largely unchallenged until one of the girls witnesses a catastrophic event as her summer comes to a close, which leads ultimately to large scale rebellion.
The novel is told through the eyes of various women on the island: Amanda, a young woman pregnant with her first child; Vanessa, the intelligent daughter of one of the wanderers; Caitlin, an abused daughter of one of the few families to migrate to the island in recent times; and Janey, a rebel against the restrictive life prescribed to her. Through these narrations, we become aware of the disturbing lives these young women lead (at one point, it dawned on me that the girls are expected to do something pretty horrifying from a young age- it kind of creeps up on you.) It’s a claustrophobic atmosphere that not only shows horrendous oppression but also the enormous strength women can have in such situations- and the amazing defiance of young girls.
I found the novel quite similar to Station Eleven, even down to its ambiguous ending (how I would love to read a sequel!) but it’s also one that has stayed with me. Although not clear when the novel is set, it has the feeling of a dystopia that’s all the more scary for feeling quite possible.
Imagine, if you will, that thanks to a biological anomaly, women discover they have the ability to produce electricity. At first it’s a novelty, something that fascinates society. But then it becomes scary; girls and women start using the power against men and boys and world order is freaked out and threatened. There are protests and laws passed in order to curb the women, but they keep getting stronger and stronger. Men feel threatened. The world is turned on its head and, eventually, women become the ‘stronger sex’.
This is the story told in The Power, a futuristic feminist dystopian novel in the tradition of books such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Only Ever Yours. The world is seen through the eyes of some of the women: a religious mystic, a gangster’s daughter, a politician and her daughter; as well as from the viewpoint of a young male reporter who has documented the rise of the power and the overthrow of centuries of cultural realities. And, like a patriarchal society, this new world order does have problems. Resentment breeds terrorism. People get out of control. One of the most shocking incidents in the book is a scene in which there are war crimes committed against the most vulnerable. There’s no way that the writer of Zombies, Run would allow her creation to be a Utopia.
I think I read this book at the right time: we’re living in an age where politicians are threatening to roll back hard-won rights for women and we have a president in the White House who is considering all kinds of problematic policies relating to reproductive rights. Women are marching and making their voices heard (albeit without using electric shocks). It’s tempting to think about what would happen if a woman was in the White House, if for whatever reason, patriarchal society was turned on its head. One of the things Naomi Alderman’s work does for me is that it makes me think very hard about what I would do in certain situations (I am still plotting how I would survive the zombie apocalypse and I haven’t played Zombies, Run in ages. My answer would be: I’d survive on nettles and other bits that grow near by; offer my knitting skills to make socks for those more equipped for fighting; loot other people’s houses/Waterstones for books at the first chance. I’d probably not survive long, to be honest.)
But what would I do if I suddenly came to possess a strange new power? Would it alienate me from my husband and son? Would I use it for good? I honestly don’t know. But I do know that I am watching the world with bated breath and I just can’t get this novel out of my head at all.
I’m going to start with quite a bold statement, uncharacteristic of my reviews: this book is brilliant. It’s a cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and the film Mean Girls and I love both of those equally, so of course I loved this book.
Only Ever Yours is the tale of frieda (the lack of a capital letter is intentional), an ‘eve’ or girl created in the labs of a dystopian future in which the patriarchy reigns supreme and women have a ‘termination date’ of their 40th creation date. Before then, though, these girls are created to fulfil one of three roles: the companion, a wife and almost-chaste mother of sons; the concubine, who is designed to meet the men’s sexual needs outside of marriage; and the chastity, a secular nun-like figure whose role is to care for the growing eves.
And what of the eves’ intended husbands? Well, they are the Inheritants, who choose a girl when they’re sixteen. This is when frieda’s downfall begins; she falls in love with the top rated boy, Darwin (whereas the boys are named after scientists and other important men, the girls are named after models and actresses, and each girl possesses qualities of her namesake. freida resembles Freida Pinto, the girl named cara is famed for her strong eyebrows.)
The girls live in isolation from the world, but their own world is one of petty jealousy, backstabbing and endless analysis of their looks and others’. Constantly ranked against each other from the age of four, they learn that their worth is entirely based on their outward appearance.
The novel is a powerhouse of criticism of the representation of women and men in the media- at times it bristles with O’Neill’s disapproval of the modern world and the way we view ourselves and others. The girls are just objects for the male gaze and their to serve the men who will ultimately decide their fate- using the madonna/whore dichotomy that has so shaped our media since Victorian times. It’s just that now we have the internet to help. The girls turn on each other with alarming speed in order to get what they want, whilst still maintaining that fake facade we all remember from secondary school.
As a media teacher, and someone fascinated by the way we view the world, I loved it.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in the post-apocalyptic world recently, what with doing the Zombies Run app and reading dystopian fiction. I have genuinely had thoughts about whether I’d survive in the event of a zombie hoard or natural disaster (answer: probably not. Depressing.) Station Eleven is another example of the trend for ‘end-of-the-world’ lit and in some ways, it’s fantastic.
The novel starts on the night that a famous actor, Arthur Leander, dies onstage as he plays King Lear. His life serves as the thread of the novel, the way that characters are linked throughout the narrative. What also happens that night is that a flu pandemic hits North America and 99% of the human race is wiped out. What happens next is that we see the lives of two of those who were at the theatre- a trainee paramedic and a child actress playing one of Lear’s young daughters- develop in the strange new world.
The narrative is non-linear and I found this frustrating. The characters I would have liked to see more of, such as Arthur Leander’s friend, Clark, or Kirsten, the child actress who went on to join a travelling troupe of Shakespearean actors, were cut short and I felt like I was reading a ton of half stories. I just never felt I had time to develop an emotional link with anyone in the novel. The links to the comic book written by one of Arthur’s ex-wives- where the novel gets its name from- were quite heavy handed and it was definitely clear that were meant to get that the underwater lives of the characters in the graphic novel were meant to represent the lives of the humans who had survived the catastrophic flu outbreak.
I did like the premise of the novel; it’s one of those things that could happen (God forbid) and the stories of survival are deeply human and realistic. What would you do if you were stranded at an airport for the rest of your life? As a Shakespeare geek, I also enjoyed the Bard-related thread running throughout the novel. But overall, it felt too bitty, too rushed for me to really enjoy it.
Buy Station Eleven here (affiliate link)
It must be pretty daunting to have your book described as a combination of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room and The Hunger Games- after all, they’re such different novels.. Funnily enough, though, Above does have elements of both novels.
The story begins in what I took to be modern day Kansas; 16-year-old Blythe is told by the weird school librarian that her brother has been in an accident and that she has to hurry to go to him. This is just a ruse, however, and the good Samaritan turns out to be a ‘prepper’- someone who is preparing for the apocalypse. He’s also dangerously obsessed with ‘saving’ Blythe.
Part One deals with Blythe’s attempts to cope with her confinement over the course of many years and the descriptions of her breakdown are at times utterly heartbreaking, especially her attempts to make life as normal as possible for her (almost inevitable?) child, Adam. Part Two deals with the trauma of what they find after they escape- and believe me, nothing in the preceding chapters prepares you for what comes next.
I felt that the first section of the book was the strongest; although I didn’t really like Blythe all that much, I felt for her and her predicament. The second part of the book (I don’t want to say too much, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise!) was certainly weaker and the character of Blythe became even more unlikeable. I did understand why she behaved like she did, but I sometimes wished I could have shaken her and told her to get a bit of a grip. Of all the characters, Adam was the most likeable and the one I rooted for. His understandable innocence of the world put me in an interesting position as a reader, as I saw things in a new and interesting way- one that we perhaps forget about as we grow older.
Did it live up to the Room/Hunger Games comparison? Well, I felt the depiction of Blythe’s confinement was well written and I did prefer this novel to Room. However, it’s a bit of a stretch to compare it to The Hunger Games. Yes, there are similarities, but they’re not as well realised.
Source: Bookbridgr for review