A Very American Tale – Peggy Riley’s Amity and Sorrow

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Stories of sexual abuse continue to dominate the headlines, at least here in the UK; the most recent put a Liberal Democrat peer and a Scottish Catholic Cardinal under suspicion. Meanwhile, the continued legal ordeal of Vicky Pryce, wife of disgraced MP Chris Huhne, probes at the limits of marital coercion and personal responsibility.

This week I reviewed Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley, a dark tale of fundamentalist oppression which may well make a few waves when it comes out over here on March 28th. It gripped me, in precisely the way a Tennessee Williams drama does – you fear the inevitable outcome but you’re strapped in for the ride and you can’t look away.

I find these tales of American absolutes, where a pressure-keg of emotional tension is contrasted with an endless, empty landscape, make very powerful theatre – particularly so at Manchester’s Royal Exchange where the space-module like theatre structure sitting inside a vast, echoing building is skilfully exploited to reinforce the effect. (I saw Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night there, an experience that has never left me).

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Anyway, here’s what I thought of the book…

In an ultra-libertarian society, how do you define right and wrong? It’s a problem that has been addressed frequently in American fiction. When Amaranth and her two teenage daughters flee a fundamentalist cult, they reverse the journey of Steinbeck’s Joads in The Grapes of Wrath and find themselves in the Oklahoma dustbowl, throwing themselves on the mercy of a hardscrabble farming family when, having driven non-stop for days, she crashes her car on their land.

The scene is set for the kind of claustrophobic drama that Tennessee Williams does so well, and there is a feeling of inevitablility as the narrative unfolds over the next few months, interspersed with flashbacks to the escalating horror that Amaranth has escaped – physically, at least. The worst damage, however, is at first invisible. Amaranth and her daughters are as deeply damaged as you’d expect, and not since Emma Donoghue’s Room has a novelist presented us with characters less equipped to deal with the modern world. Never mind the Internet; these girls can’t even read.

It’s not that difficult to figure out the real reason why Amaranth has finally broken free of her polygamous cult-leader husband; in fact, it’s horribly clear from the first few pages when the older girl miscarries a baby in a gas-station restroom. You may feel, as I did, that we’re in entirely predictable territory here and there’s little point in reading on.

But Riley is a skilful writer with a particularly acute grasp of dialogue and character, and the main theme of her tale is an original and troubling one. Why are women so often complicit in the abuse of themselves and their children, and so reluctant to report it to the authorities? Can it be because the favour of even the vilest abuser can confer a warped status on his victims? Riley’s answer is clearly yes, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it.

That’s not a conclusion that everyone would accept, and this novel will make excellent material for reading group discussions. These characters aren’t likeable, but by the end of the story you’ll understand the reasons for that and understand, even if you can’t condone, the choices they have made.

Riley has taken some of the archetypes of classic American fiction and given a contemporary twist to the well-worn theme of a dream gone bad. And in doing so, she’s shown that sometimes the hardest thing to get right about escaping sexual abuse is knowing the moment before it will be too late to run.

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