Amity & Sorrow

Peggy Riley

Published by Tinder Press 28 March 2013

284pp, hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by Lesley Bown


Somewhere in America, yet another strange religious sect has collapsed in on itself.  Amaranth, the First Wife, escapes in the husband’s car with her two daughters, Sorrow and Amity.  They drive for four days and find themselves in Oklahoma, in a scene straight out of The Grapes of Wrath. Here, in the dusty middle of nowhere, a farmer struggles to get his crops to grow, turning to drink for solace in the evening, locking his crazed elderly father in the bedroom, helped only by a teenage boy claiming to be half Mexican but answering to the name of Dust.

In other words, Amaranth has driven from the frying pan into the fire.  After a dysfunctional childhood and fifteen years in the wilderness of the sect, which totally cut itself off from the outside world, she has no way of knowing that she has somehow landed up in another mythical distorted world.  Amity and Sorrow, who can’t read and have never seen a television or a computer, can’t help her.

The names give a clue that the book is an allegory, and as the story of the collapse unfold, the reader learns that it all started when Amaranth’s closest friend, Hope, left the sect.  With Hope gone there is, literally, no hope.  Even more significantly though, Hope leaves because her eldest son has reached puberty and can no longer be contained within the sect, where it becomes apparent that there can only be one sexually active male, the ageing husband of the wives, all fifty of them.  This is a story about what happens during that dangerous period when children start the transition into adulthood, when male children challenge the dominant male and females have difficult choices to make.

Amaranth, Amity and Sorrow are fully realized and interesting characters, but the men are less convincing.  Distant, unknowable and sometimes terrifying, they never really come to life.  They are objects of sexual desire, wielders of power, and scarily unreliable sources of knowledge.

Received wisdom suggests that unhappy, immature, dysfunctional people are drawn to the comfort of a sect, which becomes a substitute for family, but Peggy Riley pursues the more unusual question of whether such people can create anything other than alternative forms of dysfunction.  Before she joined the sect Amaranth drank, and after leaving it she rides a rollercoaster of uncontrolled emotions, sexual desire and maternal instinct.  She is short on intelligence and self control, muddling through the crisis with dumb determination.

The writing reflects this plodding focus rather than her wildness.  There is a measured steady pace that allows the story to develop gradually while maintaining the reader’s interest – at least until the last few pages.  A running thread through the book is that Amaranth slowly eases herself back into mainstream society, with many mistakes and misunderstandings, but as the climax approaches her small successes are not enough to sustain her, and things start to veer wildly out of control.  The writing, however, does not reflect this change and the climax feels too long and slow, with a resolution that is messy and unsatisfying.

A novel raises questions in the minds of its readers, and may or may not suggest answers.  Amity & Sorrow is short on answers and long on atmosphere, whereas most allegories have the opposite tendency.  As the story unfolds the allegory is lost, disappearing as Amaranth makes her slow journey back to the real world.  We do not learn the fate of Hope, but, perhaps, there is still some.


Comments are closed.