Amity and Sorrow are two sisters, barely into their teens, tied together by a strap and torn from their home by Amaranth their mother. Having driven for four days, Amaranth crashes the car and the three take refuge in a farm in Oklahoma, tolerated by gruff farmer Bradley. The girls are entirely innocent of the world but they know all there is to know about hellfire, the wrath of God, the iron grip of a controlling, charismatic minister father and the company of other women and children, all belonging to the man their mother flees. What should have turned the preacher’s wife number one, Amaranth, against her husband is all too apparent when we first meet Sorrow miscarrying her father’s baby in a gas station toilet. But, whereas Amity finds hope and interest in this new chance of freedom, Sorrow wants nothing more than to return to her father and his cult of fifty wives. She is the vessel that will bring forth a messiah to lead them through the apocalypse. She must engulf the world of sin in flames.
Amity and Sorrow is a tale of two worlds. In one, Amaranth and Amity begin to recover a life, breaking long-lived rules, talking to men and boys, wandering into forbidden fields, enjoying food and drink and small pleasures, learning to embrace an optimistic hope that the world will continue and that it has something in it for them, even if that is a simple life on a remote farm with a man with troubles of his own. In the other world, we journey backwards through time into Amaranth’s story, getting to know her husband who would return from every trip with yet another wife. Set against the story of the many wives learning to know and love one another is the seedy account of a man exploiting vulnerable women and girls, including his daughter. Sorrow’s tale is a different one from Amity’s and when we realise why it seems hardly surprising.
The story of the mother and her two daughters is set against that of Bradley, the farmer, his old father and his stepson, Dust. These are hardly ideal circumstances for one family to learn to adopt another but they pick their way through the barriers of religion, betrayal and suspicion and find something else, at least some of them do.
This is a novel with a fair share of fire and pain. People are scarred on the outside as well as the inside. Flames are both a punishment and a salvation. Side by side with the hellfire is farming and fertility – the nurture of crops, the stirrings of sexual desire – but the name of the crop (much repeated in the novel), rape, is an ugly reminder of the danger beyond the fields.
This is a first novel and really rather extraordinary for it. Written in the present tense, moving fluidly between characters and perspectives, hinting at hidden lies and slowly unravelling truths. It’s an intense read, not especially easy in places, and it is harrowing, but there are moments of sweetness and charm. While my sympathies were tested to the limit by Amaranth and Sorrow, I really enjoyed the character of Amity as well as the richness of the setting. The prose is extremely evocative and the way it brings us to the truth of what Amaranth has left behind is very powerful and compulsive. Amity and Sorrow is not a long novel but it has great depth.
Later in April, I’ll be returning to Amity and Sorrow with author Peggy Riley.