Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley

Prospective 2013 cover. Image: headline.co.uk
Prospective 2013 cover. Image: headline.co.uk

From the outset, everything about this novel is mysterious. The tagline on the cover reads, ‘Not everyone wants to be saved’. The inside cover reads,

One father; two daughters; fifty wives.

They’re waiting for Salvation. Pray it never comes.

In the wake of a suspicious fire, Amaranth gathers her children and flees from the rural fundamentalist cult in which her children were born and raised. Now she is on the run with only her barely-teenaged daughters, Amity and Sorrow, neither of whom have ever seen the outside world, to help her.

After driving for four days straight, Amaranth falls asleep at the wheel and crashes into a tree near a gas station in the middle of nowhere. With most of their possessions destroyed and Sorrow suffering and bleeding for some unknown reason, the three women set up camp at the gas station, sleeping on the porch of the house of the owner, a farmer. The rules of their home dictate their actions – no speaking to men, keep heads covered, do not enter a man’s house, do not enter fields – but they struggle through.

Straight away the starkness of the writing and the surreality of the images reminded me of Carson McCullers – indeed the whole novel has a Southern Gothic feel to it, despite not being set in the South. Author Peggy Riley manages to create intense atmospheres with deceptively simple writing, and her ability to hold back information from the reader until later means that a deep feeling of tension and unease runs throughout the entire novel.

I think a lot of this story is about fear. Fear, and the ways we learn to deal with our situation, no matter how we feel about it. Everyone in this book is afraid of something, and these fears dictate their lives in a fundamental way that they cannot simply undo.

Amity and Sorrow are like representatives of their family (and their religion) flung out into the world to see how the two react. Neither of them have ever seen the outside world until their mother throws them in the car and drives out into it. She, on the other hand, had a whole different life before she married their father – though it was not necessarily a good one – and knows that there is more out there than the life their family have been living. She knows there are different ways of doing things, and now she is out in the world she finds it hard to adhere to the rules so deeply ingrained in her children. The outside world is calling her back to it.

Amaranth’s decisions and the changes she makes are a brilliant examination of what a religion, an idol, a protector and a belief can do to a person. Again a lot of it is to do with fear (of Hell, of being alone, of being unwanted) but also to do with being lost and unsure of oneself. Her husband, Zachariah, is a very interesting character that you wish you knew more about as you read on, even though sporadic flashbacks to ‘Before’ tell you a little more about him.

Throughout this book I was totally unsure of what would happen next, right up to the very last page, and that is something quite rare. Peggy Riley has really created something special with Amity & Sorrow. It is a slow-burner, and takes time and patience, and will stay with you long after you finish it.

*

Published in March 2013 by Tinder Press, a new imprint of Headline. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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