I have recently read two books which have shattered me to my very core. I can’t say I enjoyed either book, as they were both disturbing and utterly wrong. But both were well-written, and the incredible tension meant that I could not stop reading. They introduced me to a certain type of story I haven’t heard before, and definitely have so much to offer, despite their confronting nature. Feel free to read ahead, but know that there will be some spoilers (not many, but this is not a post to read if you like going into novels blind) for My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent and Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed.
Both of these books focus on incest, of fathers sexually abusing their daughters. I read My Absolute Darling a few weeks ago – Turtle was an incredible protagonist. She is a survivor, of an abusive, misogynistic, survivalist father. The scenes depicting the sexual abuse were graphic, pushing the horror into the mind, forcing you to see uncomfortable scenes. It is so atrociously horrendous, but you also cannot tear your eyes away from the page. How can a man as intelligent as Martin, whose every line of dialogue is so persuasive, believe that this is the way the world should be, that he has the right to abuse his fourtenn-year-old daughter? It is a book which drives home the patriarchal nature of society, and the vulnerability women face. In this story, it wasn’t just the sexual abuse which cut me to the core. There is a scene where Martin has Turtle do pull-ups while holding a knife beneath her crotch. If she fails, she will be cut. The tension was incredible and every moment I felt like I might be sick. The entire time I was reading this book, I felt tense and afraid. It made me uncomfortable, but I could not stop.
Gather the Daughters made me feel significantly more uncomfortable. It takes place on an island, the home of some kind of cult, who have removed themselves from the modern world. Unlike My Absolute Darling, the sexual abuse isn’t explicit. It is implied. At first it seems as though it only occurs in one or two families on the island. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that it is a mandated rule that fathers can treat their daughters as second wives until they begin to menstruate. I found this book highly disturbing. The graphic nature of My Absolute Darling was incredibly confronting, but Gather the Daughters regularly made me want to vomit. The idea of incest being ingrained in a society’s values rattled me. I think this novel may have affected me a little more, as I had expected it to be empowering (based on the blurb, which places emphasis on the summertime where children run wild and free). I was also completely and utterly dissatisfied with the ending. In My Absolute Darling, comeuppance is served. Here, it is not. The selfish bastards win.
Both novels possess incredibly powerful female characters, doing their best under horrific circumstances. I believe that reading both of these books in such close proximity has affected my comprehension of them both. I went into My Absolute Darling knowing that the themes were shocking, but I had no warning for Gather the Daughters. In fact, I was led to believe that it was YA fiction. IT IS DEFINITELY NOT YA FICTION.
These books will make incredible book club books, particularly if read in conjunction with each other. Though, be warned about the time needed to process the horrors. Personally, I am inclined to agree with Stephen King that My Absolute Darling is a ‘masterpiece’, and the more I consider it, the more I truly believe in its power as a story. Gather the Daughters hasn’t had the same luxury of time to sink in, but it is a powerful novel with incredibly interesting questions raised in its telling. While I cannot truly say I liked either book – can you like something that makes you uncomfortable? – both have such incredible value in telling a story which I haven’t heard before. Despite making me incredibly uncomfortable and being incredibly confronting, these novels need to be read and discussed.
What are your thoughts on reading through novels that disturb and confront you? Is there a line you don’t want your fiction to cross?