There are a good handful of novels out there on cults, but what I thought made this book unique was the fact that the characters were more or less aware of the fact that they were actually part of a cult. Most members of this cult did not decide to join it – they were born into it. They believed in it because there was nothing else to believe in.
The story of this cult is told from the perspective of four teenage girls that reside on the island: Janey, a natural leader – as well as outsider – among the other girls, Vanessa, the privileged daughter of a Wanderer (one of the few that can leave the island in order to search for supplies), Caitlin, a meek girl who becomes invaluable, and Amanda, a new wife and an expecting mother. Each girl’s perspective offered something new to the story since they all are on different levels of the social hierarchy. It’s hard not to create an alliance with each and every one of these girls while reading this novel.
The society outlined in this story is awfully bleak one. It is blatantly patriarchal, and the women are treated as if they have no thoughts or dreams of their own. Women are basically regarded as breeding machines and very little more. Their daughters are treated even worse. Everything in this society is regulated carefully by a Book that was written by the Ancestors, which act, essentially, as this community’s gods. There is no electricity and all work is the product of human labor. There is no real indication what decade this novel is set in. They adopt a unique tradition of letting the children run wild every summer to blow off steam, which makes summer the one sweet spot in a miserable year for the girls who are telling us the story for their point of views. Notably, one of the core accepted beliefs on this island is that the rest of the world experienced some sort of apocalypse and is engulfed in flames – hence why this community found refuge on an isolated island.
I found this book incredibly compelling for several different reasons. First of all, it was like nothing I’ve ever read before. This is due to the fact that is was genre blurring – it seemed to be an interesting combination of science fiction, dystopian thriller, and coming-of-age narrative. It also had a very distinct writing style. It’s clipped, vague, and almost other-worldly, which I thought matched the overall tone that the novel was trying to establish. It managed to vividly create not only a cult but a whole dystopian-style society, and the way that Melamed gradually reveals details and hints at the deeper infrastructure in this society is done masterfully because one never wants to put the book down.
This book deals with some seriously dark and difficult material. It’s hinted at in the beginning, but then once this key detail comes to light, it takes center the stage. The novel seems to swerve into another direction and yet another layer of this society that this cult has designed is revealed. Out of all the things that a reader might learn about this cult while reading this novel, this aspect is the one thing that they are not going to forget. I’m deciding to leave what exactly the nature of this disturbing detail is for the sake of keeping this review free of major spoilers, but also because of the way that Melamed reveals it should be experienced firsthand. It might completely turn a reader off from even wanting to finish this novel, and I know everyone will react to it in their own way.
Even considering all the disturbing aspects of this novel, I couldn’t imagine giving it less than five stars just because the subject matter is dark and twisted. This novel took many risks, and I think they all paid off. I found this book incredibly intriguing, emotionally raw, and strategically composed. Most of all, I loved how blatantly unique it was, in both the plot and writing style. If you want to try something different, I suggest picking this book up.