Following a devastating fire Amaranth flees from a fundamentalist religious cult where she was the first (and only legal) wife of the controlling preacher Zachariah. He has forty nine other wives. In the back of the car her two daughters, Amity and Sorrow, cower in the back strapped together with a ‘strip of white fabric’. As she drives through night after night without stopping ‘she is watching for the end of the world. Father told them it would come and, surely, it will’. Amaranth crashes the car in Oklahoma outside farmer Bradley’s petrol station. With the car wrecked they can go no further and take shelter on Bradley’s porch as the rules of their religion prevent them entering the house. As the family adjusts to their new world Amaranth has to face the truth of what her husband and his religion has done to her, her children and the other women she abandoned to the fire. Although Amaranth helped form the cult and believed that they were living a good and holy life, she gradually realises that instead of being a force for good the large extended family became a breeding ground for terror and abuse. Free of the cult Amity’s mind opens to the possibilities of this new world and she begins to see life in a different way. Only Sorrow ‘the holy one’ yearns to return and will do anything to be reunited with her father.
Amity and Sorrow is the brilliant first novel of writer and playwright Peggy Riley published by the newly formed Tinder Press. It is a novel about the power of belief, living the good life and the potentially destructive nature of love. This is a book with a great premise and a well researched plot that moves at a good pace, but it’s the characters that steal the show. Amaranth is a woman with drive and inner strength (you’d have to be to run like she did leaving everything she knows behind to burn), but as she leaves the apparent safety of the cult where she felt the love and strength of being part of a large family she is initially stymied by her fear, not only of her husband who she believes will pursue her to the ends of the Earth, but also of the God who she believes is about to invoke the fire and brimstone of Revelations. It is this dichotomy that Riley shows us so well: the cult that nurtured and protected her and her children, that allowed her to feel ‘part of a family, to feel part of something bigger and older and deeper than herself’ is also abusive and terrifying and at the root of their distress. It’s a difficult balance and Riley handles it well.
Riley portrays Amity’s confusion in her new situation with impressive skill. This is a girl who has never seen the world (or even the road) outside the confines of the cult, who dresses in strange clothing, never shows her hair, who can’t read or write and accepts that spinning wildly in their temple will bring them closer to God. She is also a girl on the cusp of adulthood entering an alien world where the rules she’s grown up to respect (‘Fields are forbidden… Bad things happen there’) no longer apply. The effect is devastating. But it’s Sorrow, the Oracle, the first born child of Zachariah who stood at his side at the altar and the most fervent believer that drives the pace of the story and she’s both captivating and terrifying: an innocent child capable of immense evil. Sorrow is the character Riley appears to explore least, but appearances are deceptive. The questions that surround Sorrow lie at the heart of the story and it is her that possesses both the other characters and the reader. Throughout the book Riley leaves us to read between the lines, to make up our own mind about Sorrow and what she did or didn’t do and it is this that gives this incredible, unsettling story its power.
Any Cop?: This is an unusual story of what life can be like inside a cult, told in a unique voice. Overall it is Riley’s ability to conjure a continuing creeping menace that never lets up that makes it so successful: it is both gripping and scary and I couldn’t leave it alone. It even haunted my dreams.