One of the best books I've read this year.
A dystopian novel that manages to be both a deeply thought-through vivisection of what patriarchies do to women to keep them powerless and an action-packed, character-driven thriller filled with intense emotions.
'The Grace Year' is a high impact 'I have to tell EVERYONE to read this' book. You don't just read 'The Grace Year', you experience it and the experience changes you and you want to talk about it but the only people who will get what you're saying are the ones who've read the book. So feel free to stop here, read 'The Grace Year', give yourself a day or two to recover and then come back and read the rest of the review.
The opening of the 'The Grace Year' is irresistible:
'No one speaks of The Grace Year. It's forbidden. We're told we have the power to lure grown men from their beds, make boys lose their minds and make the wives mad with jealousy. They believe our very skin emits a powerful aphrodisiac, the potent essence of youth, of a girl on the edge of womanhood. That's why we're banished for our sixteenth year, to release our magic into the wild before we are allowed to return to civilisation.
But I don't feel powerful. I don't feel magical.
Speaking of The Grace Year is forbidden but it hasn't stopped me from searching for clues. A slip of the tongue between lovers in the meadow. A frightening bedtime story that doesn't feel like a story at all. Knowing glances nestled in the frosty hollows between pleasantries of the women at the market.
But they give away nothing.
The truth about The Grace Year, what happens during that shadow year, is hidden away in the tiny slivers of filament hovering around them when they think no-one's watching. But I'm always watching. The slip of a shawl, scarred shoulders bared under a harvest moon, haunted fingertips skimming the pond watching the ripples fade to black, their eyes a million miles away. In wonderment? In horror?
I used to think that was my magic, having the power to see things others couldn't, things they didn't even want to admit to themselves. but all you have to do is open your eyes. My eyes are wide open.'
This is an invitation to all of us to open our eyes and see the things we don't want to admit to.
This opening left me really wanting to know what The Grace Year was and why it is and if she survives it. I loved the intimate, introspective tone of the Tierney, the narrator. She sounds like someone I'd like to get to know, and of course, I'm intrigued by the content which suggests a thriller and not just ideological symbolism.
As soon as I started reading the main body of the text, the tone changed, becoming more personal, more focused on threat and response and much more emotionally intense.
The first half of the book, which does the initial world-building and describes the first few months the girls spend in their Grace Year was so thick with fear, rage, spite and betrayal that it was emotionally exhausting to read. The patriarchal cage these women are raised in is wrought in a fine filigree of taboos, violence, public shame and private unvoiced rage but it's as nothing compared to what the women are willing to do to each other when they're alone in their Grace Year.
'The Grace Year' is wonderfully written but I found myself reading it in shorter slices than usual because I find the tension hard to take. Kim Liggett is superb at creating a sense of a growing, unnamed but unavoidable dread.
You know that many of the girls on the Grace Year are doomed. You may even be able to guess at the form that the doom will take but that misses the point. That suggests that rationality and analysis and pragmatic compromise could hold the doom back but, as you share the world the girls live in, you know that isn't true because that kind of thinking doesn't take magic into account.
The girls have been raised to believe that they will come into their magic at sixteen and that the purpose of the Grace Year is to purge that magic, so they're waiting for it, hoping for it and fearing it at the same time.
One of the ways that Kim Liggett makes the tension and the dread so palpable, so hard to bear, is that she focuses on the power of belief. Magic is always based on belief. Faith has power at least in as far as those who have it see the world differently, act differently and judge themselves and others differently.
When the belief is in something benign - treat others as you would want to be treated- all life is precious - then the consequences are more likely to be benign (although the 'all life is precious' can still lead to bombing abortion clinics and 'treat others as you'd like to be treated' can still sustain a regime of unrecognised privilege and make us blind to difference).
When the belief is based on the release of a wildness that needs to be purged and that cannot be controlled then the consequence is likely to be violence, the unleashing of hate and fear and the abrogation of individual and collective responsibility. You know that, when the magic ebbs, all that will be left are shame, guilt and stubborn denial.
Kim Liggett never articulates this. There are no long passages of ethical discussion. She's the ultimate in 'show, don't tell' and what she's showing feels so real that it's very hard to watch.
In the second half of the book, Kim Leggit changes the pace. I won't share the plot details except to say that what happens next goes beyond and comparison to 'The Handmaid's Tale' and 'Lord Of The Flies' (Ligett has quotations from both prefacing the book) and goes back to the idea of Tierney having her eyes wide open. What she sees over the remainder of her Grace Year changes everything: what she wants, how she sees the other girls and fuels her rage at and contempt for the men who placed them all in this situation.
The ending is... well, I was on the edge of my seat, desperate to know what the ending was. The short answer is 'very satisfactory'. It has the punch of a thriller with a brilliant denouement but it also has a deeper level of thought that gives an insight into how women, stripped of overt power, will still work together to nurture hope and find limited freedom through subversion.
Nothing is simple in 'The Grace Year'. It's not painted in primary colours. It's immersive and complex and feels very very real.
I listened to the audiobook version and was deeply impressed by Emily Shaffer's narration. She took Kim Liggett's text and delivered the emotion, the drama and the nuanced thought perfectly. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.
And after that, go read the book and then tell everyone about it.