What a curious book this was.
I've read novels on all sorts of subjects, but I dare say that this is the first one I've read about a polygamous cult.
Amaranth was the first of fifty wives to Zachariah, a man who imagines himself a prophet. Their congregation has lived a life of relative simplicity, cut off from the world on a mountain compound where they raise their children in ignorance, praying and preaching the impending Armageddon. Then a series of cataclysmic events -- kept somewhat enigmatic for the reader -- spurs Amaranth to grab her two teenage daughters, Amity and Sorrow, and run. She drives for four days before crashing somewhere in rural Oklahoma. With no money and an intense fear that Zachariah will chase her, Amaranth seeks help from Bradley, a struggling farmer. Sorrow has been led to believe that she is an oracle, the one who can speak to God and transmit his message to the congregation. Armed with this belief and the fact that she has never known anything but this strange way of life, Sorrow proves that she will stop at nothing to defy her mother and go back to the congregation. Amity, the younger of the two daughters, is trapped in the middle, obligated to obey both her mother and her oracle sister.
It's certainly a unique story, one that offers up ample opportunity to explore interesting questions and themes. Unfortunately, I found that I just couldn't lose myself in it.
The biggest problem is the third-person narration that shifts between Amaranth's point of view and Amity's. As a result, Sorrow isn't examined as much as a character despite the fact that she's arguably the most important. As the oracle, she played a special role in the congregation and many of the events that drove Amaranth to run centered on Sorrow. Sorrow’s determination to return to the congregation is one of the primary sources of conflict in the story and yet her point of view is largely neglected. As it stands, Sorrow is examined mostly from Amity’s perspective, which is one of confusion, fear, and naiveté. It felt like a wasted opportunity to fully explore the dichotomy between the oracle and her mother’s goals.
The narration also takes for granted that we already know why Amaranth is running from her husband, what the climactic, fiery event at the compound was all about, and the rules of the compound that remain difficult to break even in Oklahoma. Surely this is done to build tension, to tease the story out for the reader. However, for me, all it did was cause confusion and frustration. Not fully understanding these rules meant that I didn't understand why the characters behave the ways they did, I couldn't really get into their heads and follow their train of thought.
I had a problem understanding Bradley's actions, as well. When he first discovers Amaranth and her daughters, he insists that he doesn't want them around but essentially shrugs when they stay. Sorrow's "lashing out" behaviors cause many problems for Bradley, and yet nothing will spur him to take action against these unwanted visitors.
In the end, I only read half this book. I think there was a lot of potential and I’m sure many other will find it gripping. I just found it rather limp.