Amity and Sorrow are sisters, the children of First Wife Amaranth. Their father is a charismatic and manipulative leader of a cult preparing for the end of the world. He surrounds himself with adoring women - fifty wives and counting - who bear and care for his children while he tours the land looking for more converts. If you detect a hint of cynicism in my assessment of him, good. I hate him as much as I love this book. He collects damaged women, such as Amaranth, and co-opts them into his warped fantasy. The community is shut off from the outside world, the children raised with no education beyond his Word. Peggy Riley has created a character I can despise for all my days!
Amaranth has been in his thrall for too long, but even she has a breaking point. The danger to her children becomes immediate, so she flees, driving across the country until she drives straight into a tree. She is helped by Bradley, but it is a complicated situation. He is reluctant to get involved and the girls are frightened of him. He is no ready-made saviour. He's a decent man, but ill-equipped to deal with the problems confronting Amaranth and her children.
Possibly not as clueless as Amaranth though. I was so desperately frustrated by her at times. She knows she needs to make a new start, for her sake as well as Amity and Sorrow's, but it is so hard for her to change after so long. She clings to the first source of comfort available, Bradley, and seems to be still trapped in her need for a man to validate her life. She seeks approval and acceptance at the cost of taking her attention away from the children, who need her so much. Her timid attempts to escape the strictures of the cult rules do little to help Amity and, especially, Sorrow; they are confused and repelled by the changes.
Amity and Sorrow have grown up knowing no other way of life than their father's doctrine. As the eldest child Sorrow has been raised as an oracle. She monopolises everything, her will unopposed. Amity is left with the crumbs of attention - I wanted to hug that little girl, her neglect hangs heavy in my heart. The tension between the sisters is beautifully written, underscored with a menace that threatens to erupt at any moment.
The writing is beautiful throughout. I said at the beginning that it was vivid and some parts are perfectly clear in my mind. The euphoric, celebratory spinning the women do just bursts off the page. Peggy also uses names brilliantly; we can guess something about both Amity and Sorrow, but Amaranth too comes into her own. She can make things bloom from the barren place from which she starts. There is hope (and Hope). There are echoes of fertility and barrenness throughout the book, we're in dustbowl territory here. There is also a chilling conflation of father/Father. There are so many things to think about and discuss in the novel.
This book resonated with me in ways I find hard to put into words, but I can say that it has continued to play in my mind in the couple of weeks since I finished it. I think it's amazing.
I was very privileged to receive a review copy of Amity & Sorrow from Tinder Press. It is published in Hardback on 28 March 2013.