Saturday, 11 May 2013

Review: Amity and Sorrow

Amity and Sorrow
Peggy Riley

Well this is an absolute corker of a novel that I almost completely missed out on. Had I not heard such good things about this novel the likelihood that I would have read it is pretty much slim to none. Novels which centre around religion, religious cults, polygamy etc. don't really appeal to me all that much and having read The Land of Decoration this year I kinda thought that I'd already had my yearly quota of religion. Really, I have all you bloggers out there who wrote sparkling reviews of Amity and Sorrow to thank for persuading me that this one is worth extending my quota for. And, by Jove, it certainly was worth it. 

Amaranth is the first of Zachariah's fifty wives. In the wake of a suspicious fire in their commune, Amaranth escapes the cult life with her two daughters, Amity and Sorrow. After four days of driving, Amaranth crashes the car somewhere in Oklahoma. There they meet Bradley and Dust and attempt to forge new lives free of Zachariah. Except Sorrow doesn't want a new life, she wants to return to her father and his other forty-nine wives. 

It's not very often that a novel can have me seriously hooked from the first page but from the minute Amity and Sorrow begins, the very first line even, I was sold on it. Powerless to resist. 

'Two sisters sit, side by side, in the backseat of an old car. Amity and Sorrow.
           Their hands are hot and close together. A strip of white fabric loops between them, tying them together, wrist to wrist.'

The writing itself is, frankly, brilliant. It is dark, beautiful, full of euphemisms and ambiguity and ridiculously atmospheric. Seriously, that bit in the bathroom at the beginning with all the blood? Yes, that bit. It is written from two perspectives, Amity's and Amaranth's. I find it interesting that Sorrow wasn't given her own narrative given that she is so central to the story but I think I can see Riley's reasoning behind that one. Whether we are party to her perspective or not, she still remains the central point around which the actions and emotions of the novel revolve. It almost endows her with all this significance whilst simultaneously rejecting any right she has to that significance. Clever, right. It is also a non-linear structure which skips back and forth in time from the present, to their escape, to their life in the Temple and to Amaranth's life before. I do like how it skips and reveals tiny little nuggets of information along the way.

The story itself is fairly elusive. It raises so many questions that I don't think always get answered. At least not always satisfactorily so. But then, I'm not sure it matters. I think the strength of the story is the way it tracks Amity and Amaranth's emotional journey and how they come to grips with the real world. I love when Amity gets new clothes:

'Amity rubs her legs together, each clad in it's own denim tube. She bounces on the rubber soles of her new secondhand sneakers and looks down at her T-shirt covered front, where cartoon fruit sits. Her hair is in two looped braids beneath Dust's kerchief. She wishes he could see her now.'

Surprisingly the religious, polygamous cult aspect of the novel did not put me off or send me to sleep. There was enough in there to keep you engaged without it becoming the only thing the novel is about. Mostly I was drawn in by wanting to know about Amaranth's past and what is was that made her join Zachariah in the first place. I almost feel like I understand polygamy a bit more. Not that I GET it, I don't think I'll ever GET it, more that I sort of understand a fraction of the reasoning behind getting into it. Y'know?!

Basically this novel is awesome. It has the perfect blend of darkness and hope. The writing is, in a word, an absolute delight. The story grabs you and the characters are well-rounded and engaging. Considering this is Riley's debut novel, I am very much looking forward to seeing what she comes out with next.

You get that I liked this book, right?

Copy acquired through NetGalley. Thanks NetGalley, you're awesome.

A version of this review is also available here, for your reading pleasure.


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