Vanessa once asked Mother why everyone cries for girls. It doesn’t seem fair that boys are greeted with celebration, but that everyone cried when she came sliding into the world on a river of salt and blood. Mother told her she’s understand when she was older.
As if plucked right out from a nightmare, Gather The Daughters by Jennie Melamed is grim and sordid but wholly well-imagined tale of a remote island colonized by ‘the ancestors’- ten men and their families who set out to escape the horrors of their birthplace. These horrors exist now only in stories passed along through generations to serve as a baseline by which to measure the other horrific things that occur on the island daily, re-framing those as better and more bearable.The daughters’ narrate this tale and through these alternating viewpoints the full picture comes into focus.
“From the fire of wickedness we grew forth, like a green branch from a rotten tree,” he reads. “From the wastelands of want came the hardworking men of industry and promise. From the war-stricken terror came our forefathers to keep us safe from harm.” Like everyone else, Vanessa mouths the words along with him. “From the cleansed and ravaged dust of the scourge came the flowerings of faith and a new way. With the ancestors to guide us, we will grow and prosper on a straight and narrow path, O ancestors, the sanctified first ten, lead with God on our behalf, and save us from impurity. Amen.”
Built within a framework of religion, the island thrives on the repression of it’s women- the obedience of the daughters who must submit to their fathers at will. With no outside contact, and the distinct possibility that nothing exists beyond the island but fire and death, these actions become the twisted norm.
“Men, we are not without task in this,” warns the pastor. “We must treat our daughters with kindness and sensitivity. We mustn’t hurt them at a whim, or damage them, but engage with them as the ancestors contracted when they left a forbidding land. We must deliver them safe, wise, and loved to their husbands. We must allow our wives to feel cared for, as cared for as they felt in the arms of their fathers as young children.”
One concession is allowed the daughters: summer. When the first rains fall, the girls leap from their beds, free to run like wild animals. Each girl counts the days until summer arrives so she can escape from under the suffocating weight of their vile subservience.
When is it not summer, the girls spend their days learning the trades of women- to cook and sew and birth children while the men work. The mothers are put to the task of training up the girls to be presentable, admirable and, most importantly, submissive wives. The mothers stand idly by while their husbands carry on the ancestors’ bidding, for fear of punishment, shaming or exile.
This training exists in preparation for when the girls come into their summer of fruitation- a celebrated time which marks their fertility and the beginning of the fulfillment of their sole purpose- to marry and bare children. Set loose in a ceremonial sexual awakening, the summer of fruitation is a time for the young men and young women to share in each other under the guise of searching for a suitable spouse.
The girls had discovered the power they had, the power to make men crawl and beg. The could say yes or no and the men would listen; the could play with them like pets or puppets. The men wanted to please their future wives, make them desire their strange male bodies with swelling bodies and heavy, dark, almost comical genitalia. The girls crawled over the men like curious animals, experimenting, examining, sniffing, biting.
But some are not yet resigned to live this life. When one girl questions her purpose on the island and plans an escape, tragedy strikes. An unexpected witness carries this tale with her until she can hold it no longer. Whispered questions ripple through the mouths and ears of the young, until one elder girl takes a stand. And it is through this resistance that doubt begins to form and the passivity of the girls begins to waiver.
As she paces, she snatches at the floating pieces in her mind, trying to make a structure that stands. The wanderers. The water. Amanda. The wastelands. Mary. The shalt-nots. Every time she tries to create an integral pattern, a clear picture, it shatters and falls into the mist. But her will is ever-flowing, unquenched. If she thinks hard enough, she can solve this puzzle. She can solve everything.
Attempting to throw off the repressive chains, Janey leads the resistance movement, recruiting girls from their warm beds to brave the autumn and winter on the beach in a state of pseudo-freedom. The girls trickle in, most timid and doe-eyed, but they are quickly turned fierce by the energy of opposing everything they grew up believing. Can they turn back the clock on countless years of torment and escape the repression of their doctrine?
“Think about it,” says Janey, slamming her hand into the alter again. “What if we didn’t have to get married? What if we didn’t have to obey our fathers?” A spark in her eyes. “What if we could make it like summer all the time? Wouldn’t you like that?”
With the highest regard for the topics explored here, Melamed steadily puts forth one horrifying truth after the other. She is an impressive storyteller and her debut shines as a result; Gather The Daughters is the embodiment of speculative fiction.
A review copy of this title was provided by Little, Brown and Company.