On a remote farm, a car crash leaves Amaranth and her two teenage daughters, Amity and Sorrow stranded and at the mercy of strangers. Fleeing a polygamous religious cult, they are completely ill-equipped to deal with modern life. Over the course of the novel, the attempts of the three women to reconcile their past with their present throw their beliefs and their identities into question. Having lived their whole lives in the isolation of their community, Amity and Sorrow initially rail against their new situation. But while Amity begins to adapt, Sorrow fights to get back to the only place she’s ever called home, with devastating consequences.
This book tackles some interesting and hard-hitting themes. From the start, it’s obvious that Sorrow’s relationship with her father is more than it seems, and some of the scenes are quite disturbing. More disturbing though is the total and unrelenting religious zeal demonstrated by Sorrow. While her younger sister Amity is more open to change and to the outside world, Sorrow remains completely and utterly certain that her God is the only God, that the cult’s way of life is the only true way and that she alone is the Oracle that can act as God’s vessel on earth. She never sways from her convictions and often resorts to extreme and violent measures in order to get what she wants. In short, she’s completely unlikable and irredeemable.
The novel is set almost entirely in remote country locations, where there’s plenty of space, theoretically and literally, for the three main characters to work through their various issues away from the rest of the world. The farmer, his elderly father and their farm hand act as a strong reminder of the alternative to the women’s former lives and constantly force them question everything about themselves. For me, there was one main question that this novel posed. Is a child that’s been brought up in a certain way really responsible for their actions? Or does the fault lie with the parent?
The flashback scenes where we find out how Amaranth found herself as one of fifty wives, which are set in the city and in the modern world, are a stark contrast to the rest of the novel. It demonstrates how easy it is to slip it is for vulnerable women like Amaranth to find themselves in situations that they never expected to be in.
This is a great book with plenty of points to discuss in book groups and I definitely can see why it made the short list for prizes. But despite the strength of the characters and the skill with which Peggy Riley builds the layers of drama throughout the novel, I found that the characters were quite hard to relate to. Their alienation from familiar modern day life meant that they were completely unique, in some ways childlike but also completely capable of making decisions that have the potential to change their own lives and the lives of the people around them. It was fascinating, but in my opinion, it almost works better as a literary examination on the effects of religious cults than it does as a story on a basic level.