Amity and Sorrow are two sisters that lead a seemingly idyllic life. They live on an isolated farm with their large family, homegrown food, and a community of love. The idyll loses a little bit of the appeal when you realize the children have one father and 50 mothers. The image is further damaged when you realize the adults require and encourage absolute ignorance in the children.
Suddenly and without warning, Amaranth drags her two daughters away from their home, driving for four days straight. She crashes their car in Oklahoma, stranding herself and her daughters – leaving their fate to beleaguered farmer Bradley. Teenage Sorrow, suffering a much needed miscarriage, longs to return to the compound and her father to await the end of the world. Younger sister Amity is confused about what it happening, and furthermore, about what is good and right. Amaranth is the only one with any real world experience, having lived in California prior to marrying the future polygamist Zachariah. Their small family must adapt to the modern world, despite Sorrow’s unwillingness to do so.
Amity & Sorrow is an interesting novel. It’s very much a meditation on the meaning of love and family. What we’re willing to do for it, the way we use it for justification, and how we hide behind it. It’s also about knowledge (and lack thereof) and the power it can wield. It’s only mildly about God, despite a religious cult being at the forefront of the plot.
Neither Sorrow nor Amity has any experience in modern society. Through Amity you get to experience the joy of books, television, computers, and junk food (yes, junk food is a joy, albeit a perverse one). In Sorrow you see the devastating consequences of a life of indulgence and indoctrination. Sorrow believes she is the oracle sent to speak God’s word and that she will birth baby Jesus – she is violent in her effort to achieve her goals and unwilling (and unable) to acknowledge the abuse she’s endured. Both girls have been denied any type of education, instead living by ‘rules’ that govern life – no going in fields, no entering a man’s house, women must bind their body and cover their hair, etc.
Knowledge was power, but ignorance was holy. It kept them humble and pliable, docile and safe as milk cows.
Zachariah abuses their ignorance, denying them the ability to function in society, yet preventing them from living a real life in their isolation. If that’s not disturbing enough, consider who the father of Sorrow’s baby might be, their communal wedding nights, or Zachariah’s meth lab (the inspiration behind the no field edict).
Despite the disquieting subject matter, Amity & Sorrow is a well-crafted novel. The prose moves easily between past and future, between mother and daughter. Riley possesses a remarkable ability to prettily describe disturbing events; it’s abrasive, yet compelling. She examines the complexities of families and the need to belong, how we lie best when we lie to ourselves (well said, Stephen King), and the ability to adapt. It’s an accomplished debut novel and one I’d recommend. 3.5/5