Vanessa, Amanda, Caitlin, and Janey. They are some of the daughters in Jennie Melamed’s stunning debut novel Gather the Daughters. Classified as science fiction, Gather the Daughters transcends genre classification with its universal themes and its ambiguity. Ostensibly, it takes place after a catastrophic societal collapse that leaves the world a burning husk known as the Wastelands. Long ago, ten families, known and worshipped as The Ancestors fled that downfall with this small remnant of humanity, founding a new society on an island where their descendants live today.

This is ambiguous though. Caitlin’s family immigrated from the Wastelands, refugees. While Caitlin remembers nothing from her long ago childhood, clearly there are some people who still live. Moreover, the most valued men on the island are the wanderers who travel to the Wastelands and forage in the wreckage of useful goods. We’re supposed to believe they are taking their lives in their hands, heading back into the raging fires of the end of the world as we know it, but for all we know, they could just be going to Walmart, which is kind of the same thing. No one talks about the Wastelands…which makes it seem as though their history may be unreliable.

Vanessa, Amanda, Caitlin, and Janey. These four young women dare to question the social order. This is a patriarchal society in the extreme. While children, they have their summers free, wildly free, but then, the summer of their menarche, they must go through fruition, a sort of male-female sexual sorting that ends in marriage. They are then allowed to have two children and when those children grow up and have children, they are expected to get out of the way by drinking the final draft so their kids can move into their house – good grandparents are dead grandparents.

Amanda has already reached menarche and through her we discover exactly what happens at fruition. She is married and pregnant and in a shockingly violent scene learns she is carrying a girl. This devastates her because she does not want to bring another girl into this miserable life they all endure. Janey is the same age, but she is starving herself to avoid fruition and marriage. Caitlin’s life is perhaps the hardest, her father is cruel and abusive and her arms are always covered with bruises. Vanessa’s probably the luckiest, a kind, generous father who brings her books from the Wastelands…stories of the world before its destruction.

Vanessa, Amanda, Caitlin, and Janey. These are brave young women – girls, really – by our standards. But their society does not value girls or women other than as servants of their fathers and then their husbands. As adults, women are not allowed to meet in groups of more than three without a male chaperone. But for Vanessa, Caitlin, and Janey, they have a final summer and Janey challenges them to resist, to ask if things could be different, to break the rules.

I loved and hated Gather the Daughters. It made me squirm and I found it very disturbing, not because the story was too outlandish, but because it seems too credible, too possible. In some ways, this culture is a natural continuation of disturbing patriarchal phenomenon in our society. Look at the growth in father-daughter vows, ceremonies where daughters pledge themselves to their father’s until marriage, even wearing rings as a symbol of that pledge. Now imagine a similar mother-son ceremony. It would never happen and people would see it as revolting and unnatural, but the reverse is celebrated. That shows how deeply as a society we accept men as the owners of their wives and daughters. This possible future is not improbable.

The prose is so beautiful, too. When Vanessa is sitting in her classroom, a classroom that is too empty with so many children affected by an epidemic that ripped through the village, “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.” It continues in one of the truest, most visceral descriptions of how grief can overwhelm us I have ever read.

This book is about how societies define norms. Often norms are oppressive and unjust and when that is so, societies often work harder to enforce them and create taboos about discussing them. One of the brilliant elements of this novel is how those social taboos about open and frank discussion keep us in the dark for a while. How we readers slowly come to realize what is unsaid, the oblique references to societal obligations and mores that we only come to grasp bit by bit.

Some people will find this book traumatic and painful to read. There are shocking scenes, graphic descriptions of labor and delivery and a shockingly violent scene early in the book when the pregnant Amanda is cut open to reveal the sex of her fetus long before its birth. Part of its “magic” is how slowly we come to understand how the patriarchy exerts its control, so let me just say this. If you are a person who needs a trigger warning for any reason, this book is going to trigger you.

Gather the Daughters will be released July 25th. I received an e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.

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