The Grace Year, by Kim Liggett, has been variously compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games, and Lord of the Flies, by reviewers and readers alike. I can see some parallels: The subjugation of women, with their fixed roles and color-coded hair ribbons, by men who use fear and ignorance to stifle female individuality; pitting the young girls against one another in a contest for supremacy; the artificially created isolation while waiting to see who survives. But this book is both more and less than any of those—more frightening in its depiction of the virulence that comes out when these girls are made to understand (or led to believe) that they will thrive only at the expense of other girls; yet less intense in the sense that the threats they encounter are many of them manufactured, some existing only in their minds. Certainly the relentless bullying of one group by another, and the ganging up of the many on the one, are true to form for all the books.
The story: Garner County is ruled by a strict form of religion, mostly unspecified although pseudo-Christian in some aspects. But there is a magical component that feels like it was introduced directly from the Salem Witch trials: Young girls are believed to have an uncanny set of powers that gradually come to fruition following puberty, and the girls are sent away to live together in isolation in a guarded compound for an entire year when they turn 16, supposedly so they can dissipate their magic into “the wild” and return to the County ready for marriage and motherhood. Their society is ruled by a council of men, and punishment for the flouting of rules includes banishment, stoning, hanging, and death by fire, further perpetuating the Salem reference. It’s baffling that most of the girls will compete so hotly to be a part of such a society, but if you know nothing else and are all too aware of the alternatives (banishment includes prostitution on the outskirts of the county, for instance, and that’s one of the less fatal destinies), it makes more sense.
Tierney James has other plans for herself. She has no desire to wed just to be controlled by man and motherhood, and has calculated that her best bet is to become a field worker, so she can be outdoors and remain as free of constraint as possible. But her hopes are shattered when she is given a veil, the symbol of being claimed by a man as soon as she returns from her “grace year.” This news is likewise unwelcome to other girls in her year who thought they were much more likely to claim one, so Tiffany is set up from the beginning of the year as a victim for bullies and malcontents. Tiffany is, because of her former tomboy ways, better prepared than most to survive in the wilderness to which they are all conveyed, and she soon realizes that the threat to her happiness—and safety, and survival—isn’t the wilderness, the woodland creatures, the poachers, or the guards, it’s the other girls. But she is unprepared for the mad intensity with which she is pursued…
The narrative by Tierney is atmospheric and consuming. The fears of the girls are stoked up to exploding point by the little knowledge they are given, coupled with their dismay upon seeing other groups of girls, greatly decimated in number and also in health and looks, returning to the County from their own grace years. The dread and anticipation are palpable, and the greatest horror is the way the women and girls all act against one another, fueled by misogynistic feelings of insecurity and doubt about their futures. Tierney does her best to combat these knee-jerk reactions and pull some of the girls out of the mob mentality, but her success is sporadic and limited. I don’t want to tell too much about the plot or the individual events or relationships, because it’s something that should be experienced first-hand by the reader, but there are many unexpected twists, especially in the last third of the book, that will keep you guessing to the end.
This book is terrifying enough to qualify as a horror read as well as a dystopian one. (Who decided that a pink cover was appropriate?!) I can’t say it’s exactly enjoyable, because it’s so brutal; but it’s definitely a book you won’t forget, and one that deals in a graphic manner with more subtle currents in society that should be addressed, from stereotypical roles to religion gone awry. I particularly liked that the resolution of the book wasn’t neat and tied up with a bow, but left some room for both despair and hope.
This book came out in 2019, yet seems to be on everyone’s radar now, for some reason. Maybe it’s the delaying effect of the pandemic, or perhaps readers were subconsciously influenced by the attacks on our democracy and personal freedoms to read about this oppressive, unpleasant society as a warning. For whatever reason, you might want to pick it up while enthusiasm is running high.