Jennie Melamed’s debut novel, Gather the Daughters, drags us into a strange society on an isolated island where gender roles are twisted and magnified. It depicts a dystopian future, not unlike that in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which the women are kept under strict control and play a very limited role in the society they live in. They are used as wives-in-training until their summer of fruition where they are temporarily cast free to run, fight and set up camp until they must settle with a husband. Then, they must have children, until they are no longer useful.
This small and radical society is kept under the strict rationing of knowledge and history, controlled breeding and destined gender roles; the daughters are wives-in-training and the boys grow up knowing that they will reign inside and outside the home. Narrated by four of the young girls at varying levels of self-awareness, the history of the island is slowly revealed. The rest of the country is incinerated to wasteland and ten families have colonised an island just off the coast. Only the chosen male descendants – the Wanderers – can cross to the wastelands to scavenge for detritus among the smouldering fires.
The book is a little slow to start. The set up of the world is a slow read before we finally get to the crux of the narrative. I found it a clunky way to open with extensive info-dumping, and yet, by the end of the book, I was still left wanting to know more of the world. We never get a true sense of the year it’s set, why the strange traditions start and what is on the outside world that they need to protect themselves from.
Comparable to The Handmaid’s Tale for its narrative on the female role and abuse in a dystopian society, but perhaps a little under-explored, it looks at the issue of female sexual abuse in our society. In this novel’s case, every female is experiencing it and no-one is talking about it. The deeply disturbing rituals – that of fathers having to lie on top of their daughter at night, an obligatory ritual which is never discussed publicly – feels like a commentary on the place of women in our society now. Exaggerated, of course, but it looks at how we drag our girls into adulthood. I’m all for supporting books that explore this theme and add to the feminist dystopian narrative of the role femininity and masculinity place in the degeneration of our societies. However, in the case of Gather the Daughters, I was left a little confused. Most characters seem confused as to why they’re doing it and against this weird tradition of systematic abuse. So why are they still doing it? And why does it start in the first place? The world building seemed to be lacking. It’s unclear what motivates this colony.
The fast-paced, dark narrative goes part way to creating a great novel. The four different narrative voices of the young girls keep you guessing and turning the page, enabling you as a reader to piece the story together. It’s unfortunate that the novel feels underdeveloped in terms of the world. It seems like Melamed had an idea for a dark, isolated setting and weird feminist dystopian future, but never quite finished linking all the pieces together. That said, the unsettling and compelling narrative and the isolated setting will get under your skin. It’s just a shame there’s not more substance to the idea.
Any Cop?: Gather the Daughters is a promising but problematic debut, energetic and dark, making Melamed one to watch.