The end of the world, again

Paul Constant

September 05, 2017

Every dystopia needs a gimmick — some hook to distinguish it from the ever-expanding constellation of literary post-apocalypses. Seattle writer Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters is a dystopian novel that remixes several pre-existing gimmicks into one. Melamed’s influences are right there in a blurb on the front cover of the book, as written by Helene Wecker, who calls it “An heir to the creations of Margaret Atwood and Shirley Jackson.” That’s about as succinct an observation as you can fit in a front-cover blurb. Gather the Daughters travels in a straight line through Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Jackson’s “The Lottery,” taking note of elements with a magpie’s eye as it proceeds.

Daughters takes place on an island off the coast of a ruined civilization. It’s been fairly stable for most of recent memory. An elite team of wanderers occasionally travel to the mainland, to pick up useful goods from the supposedly burned world. Every couple on the island is permitted two children, and boys are heavily favored over girls. Women are tolerated solely for their breeding capabilities; in marriage they are property, and once they pass child-rearing age they commit suicide. The dust-jacket plot synopsis of Daughters isn’t really enough to distinguish it from all the other doomsday scenarios clotting up bookshelves.

But Daughters has a secret weapon. Dystopias are especially useful literary tools because they help dominant social groups empathize with the day-to-day experiences of minority groups. (I’m far from the first person to point out that the indignities suffered by the white protagonists of most dystopias have almost all been suffered by minorities at some point in the history of the world.) Melamed, a nurse practitioner whose bio identifies her chosen field as “working with traumatized children,” is using her dystopia to speak out on behalf of abused girls, and she does it masterfully.

The protagonists of Daughters are all young women and girls. They’re subject to the whims of the men in power, including a pastor who preaches that…

When a daughter submits to her father’s will, when a wife submits to her husband, when a woman is a helper to a man, we are worshipping the ancestors and their vision. Our ancestors sit at the feet of the Creator, and as their hearts are warmed, they in turn warm His. These women worship the ancestors with each right action, with each right intention.

They follow commandments like “Thou shalt not allow women who are not sister, daughter, or mother to gather without a man to guide them.” It’s always been that way, girls are told, and society balances precariously on their ability to shut up and bow to the men. Of course, as in any dystopian novel, the girls eventually stand up to the men, and they are punished for it. Eventually, the marks of their punishment become status symbols:

Marks from the beatings become badges of honor. The girls compare injuries, competing for the deepest-black bruise, the grisliest swellings, the most blood dried to crackling brown on their faces…Helen, with two immobile fingers swollen like sausages, walks with her hand held before her like it was draped in ostentatious jewelry, making sure the girls see the damage thrust in front of them. Fiona, with her iridescent face, is envied and admired, and she walks around, tilting her head up toward the sun, so her skin glows in navy and violet and gold.

The way that Melamed writes about violence and abuse is different than, say, the way Margaret Atwood handles it in The Handmaid’s Tale. Melamed’s accounts of violence feel more personal, gorier, aligned on a spectrum. The girls in Daughters are forced to choose between multiple kinds of abuse; the only control they really exercise over their fates is to choose the man who will force the most tolerable kind of violence on their bodies.

Daughters is worth reading for the perspective that Melamed delivers to the genre. I’ve never before read a dystopian fiction that was an extended analogy for an abusive relationship, and the analogy works quite well. But, still, it must be noted that Donald Trump’s presidency has sapped the dystopian fiction genre of its apocalyptic luster. The genre feels old, exhausted, and Melamed’s first novel too easily follows the well-worn plot structures that have been mapped out by the thousands of books that came before.

I hope Melamed continues to write novels about this subject matter. Her understanding of the psychology of abuse and recovery is masterful, and you get the sense that at the end of Daughters, she has much more to say. But when I read this early passage about a barely tolerated library on the island, I felt as though Melamed was unveiling her potential as a writer:

As in Father’s books, the names of the publication locations are exciting and impossible to pronounce. Philadelphia, Albuquerque, Quebec, Seattle. The students have made up stories about what these places were like before they all became the wastelands. Philadelphia had tall buildings of gold that shone in the sun; Albuquerque was a forest always on fire; Quebec had such cold summers that children froze to death in seconds if they went outside; Seattle was under the sea and sent books up to land via metal tunnels.

I want to read books about those cities. Leave dystopia behind and tell me stories about undersea kingdoms and gleaming skyscrapers in parallel universes that are better than our own. We don’t need to see a world as twisted as ours in order to trigger our empathy; maybe it’s time to see what a better universe could bring out in us.

Books in this review:
  • Gather the Daughters
    by Jennie Melamed
    Little, Brown
    July 24, 2017
    352 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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