A rustic community on an isolated island: a simple society of farmers, wood-carvers and roofers. The men labour in the fields while the women bring forth children and keep the home; as a woman, one submits first to one’s father and then one’s husband; and, when one’s children have had children and one’s usefulness is outlived, one takes the fatal draught. Nobody questions the laws of the ancestors. It was doubt and sin, after all, which led to the great fire which has ravaged the old world, which is now nothing but a parched wasteland where none but the wanderers may go. Things are as they have always been – as they should be. But, for a group of girls teetering on the brink of womanhood, a dangerous question hovers in the air. Who makes the laws? And what truly lies beyond the island?
Amanda, Vanessa and Janey have never known anything but the island. They are descended from the ten original ancestors, who came here generations ago to save their families from the fires and to live a purer, simpler life. Caitlin arrived as a small child, when her parents fled from the wastelands, but she doesn’t remember anything from before and, even if she could, it’s forbidden to speak of it. Everyone knows that the world has been destroyed in flame. The wanderers are the only ones permitted to leave the island and scavenge for necessary things that the island itself can’t provide: bowls; netting; even the rare books that Vanessa’s own father has spirited back – not entirely to the satisfaction of his peers. But why dwell on the memory of a wicked world?
The island has its own way of working, something that Melamed unveils gradually through the first few chapters of her novel. The customs dawn on you slowly, unpleasantly, as you understand the way this ‘idyll’ has been created by and for the satisfaction of men. (Skip this sentence if you don’t want spoilers, but it is very interesting to note how the novel relates to Melamed’s doctoral work on ‘anthropological, biological, and cultural aspects of child sexual abuse‘). Girls are bound into a schedule of growth, fruition, marriage and childbearing that allows no flexibility, no compassion and no relief. The only freedom they enjoy are the wild summers of their childhoods, when the adults let the prepubescent children run through the woods and fields in the long, hot days, to work off the wild exhilaration of the year. But, to borrow a phrase, summer’s lease hath all too short a date, and all girls know that their time is limited. Soon they will flower, their bleeding will begin and then another kind of summer awaits them – prescribed, inescapable, and the beginning of the end.
The girls know that to ask questions about the wastelands – to ask questions about anything – is to risk disapproval, perhaps even beatings. But, in their different ways, Janey and Vanessa both itch to understand more about the world they’ve left behind. Bright Vanessa has read things in her father’s books that hint at a world of wonders, while fierce Janey, who starves herself in the desperate hope of staving off adolescence, is convinced that dark secrets lie at the heart of their community. And Amanda, whose first year of married life has left her suffocated and adrift, begins wildly to dream of a way out.
Melamed’s novel leaves a haunting, troubling flavour in the reader’s mouth. There is something ever so slightly anticlimactic about the ending, but perhaps that is deliberate, to avoid any sense of triumph. It reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale and of The Power, but while its feminism is no less deeply entrenched than the latter, it has less swagger. Perhaps it’s a dystopian vision for our own times: a tale of doubt, a lack of faith in authority and a sense of the futility of resistance. There’s also, of course, the faintest hint of The Crucible about it, in its story of young woman threatening to uproot the very values of the society which has formed them, through their angry refusal to conform.
If you have read any of those novels, I would certainly suggest giving this a go. It’s a well-crafted book in which horror sidles its way into your line of sight, and Melamed has a deft way of building tension that leaves your nerves shimmering. And then there’s the lingering question of genre. When I began reading this, I assumed it was science fiction. Now I’m not so sure. It could, alarmingly, be contemporary fiction. What’s certain is that it’s worth a read: a sobering indictment of how there is no such thing as an objectively ‘ideal’ world, for one man’s dream is another (wo)man’s nightmare.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review