May 23, 2015


Books

Debut novel falls well short of expectations

THERE are few things more disappointing than a promising plot that fails to deliver. Unfortunately, this highly touted debut novel by American writer Peggy Riley offers just that sort of tale.

The novel opens with two sisters, Amity and Sorrow, sitting side by side in the back of a car, a white strap binding their hands together. In front, their mother, Amaranth, drives the girls down empty stretches of highway for days without sleep.

They are on the run from Amaranth's husband and the girls' father, the leader of a polygamous, fundamentalist cult, and his 49 other wives.

After days without a break, their mother crashes the car into a tree off the highway somewhere in the middle of Oklahoma. A farmer named Bradley comes to their rescue and reluctantly lets Amaranth and her daughters sleep on his porch while they figure out where to go next. But they are always looking back over their shoulders for the man who is coming after them.

As the women settle into the farm, we begin to learn about their troubled past while they attempt to reconcile where their lives have taken them.

This is part of where the story goes wrong. Too much of it takes place on the farm, where very little actually happens. The only really glowing parts happen in brief flashbacks, where Amaranth details the strange and difficult life she experienced under her husband Zachariah's thumb.

But the lack of any real details about what should have been the most interesting part of the novel are noticeably absent. For example, Riley fudges the denomination of the religious cult.

After what seems like a rather short time, Amaranth takes up with the farmer Bradley. It's a bit difficult to fathom why woman who has been emotionally, psychologically and sexually abused for decades would jump into bed with the first man to cross her path.

The story also suffers from a lack of character development. We learn nothing about Zachariah and how he came to be a man with 50 wives or Amaranth and how she ended up in his nest to begin with.

Sorrow is simply an empty husk, reciting religious doctrine without any real insight into what motivates her, while Bradley also remains elusive, seeming to act only as a place-filler throughout.

Amity is the only character we get to know on any deep level and thus she becomes the only one worth caring about.

Riley's prose is also stilted and clunky. For example, she writes, "The field is calling to her, calling from the old man's window, calling from the house. It calls from the dirt-strewn threshold."

Her tendency to repeat words and phrases over and over again makes the story feel clumsy. The novel doesn't redeem itself until the last 30 pages when the women return to the cult, but by then, the reader will likely have already given up.

Nisha Tuli is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 J8

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