When it was published last year, I saw a lot of mixed reviews on this novel. Which does sort of makes sense, since it was long listed for the Man Booker Prize, and many prize winners do tend to be polarizing (in style and/or message). I am always interested in seeing what these mixed review books are like for myself, and this one was no different. Although it wasn’t a top of the list TBR for me, I knew I’d get there eventually, and here we are.
“Our lives are our lives.”
Three sisters, Grace, Lia and Sky, live in a remote area with their mother and father (King). King has crafted a sort of cult-like existence for the women of his family, using various “therapies” (read: abuses and emotional manipulations) to cleanse them, keep them safe from the toxins in the world around them, and prepare them for the suffering that life will bring them. He has marked the borders of their land and, in a pretense of keeping them safe from the men in the outside world, who could do them immeasurable harm, has kept them sequestered for their whole lives. But one day, King leaves. And shortly thereafter, three men wash up on their shores, throwing everything they’ve been taught into question and forcing the girls to make some difficult choices to preserve or escape their lives.
Well, I feel bad that I cannot provide a definite report on my feeling about this book, but I, like everyone else it seems, am full of mixed feelings now that I’ve finished. Let’s perhaps start with the good things. For one, I loved the writing. And it does seem, after everything I’ve read, that the writing itself is what garnered the positive reviews and prize nominations for everyone else too. Mackintosh created an eerie and impressively creepy atmospheric feel. From page one, I was gripped in the tension of the tale…before I had any idea what was going on, no hint of what might happen, or anything even remotely approaching “understanding.” You just know, right from the beginning, that everything is just…off. And you can feel that it’s only going to get worse. Pulled in suddenly and smoothly, I realized more than once while listening (side note here: the audiobook was really well narrated) that my hands were clutching the steering wheel in my car so tightly that I was getting sore. So, yea, basically phenomenal writing and ambiance-building.
Also, I think, if I interpreted it correctly, that I liked King’s creation of a “big bad” outside world, full of toxins and dangerous men, that he is attempting to save his girls from. To be honest, while it is, in some ways, an exaggeration of reality, it is also not really that far off base. It’s a focus on only the negatives (supported, of course, by the various women who come from the “mainland” to attempt to join this little cult and be cured/saved from their own trials and abuses) and of course, serves only King’s purposes (irony of ironies: he is a man), but I like the attached message: that this is a sort of dystopia situation that, while unrealistic, is still, actually, totally possible in the present-day world…no trace of fantasy to be found. Kudos to Mackintosh for pulling off that juxtaposition. (Side note: while I liked the greater narrative message of King’s utopia, the entire “therapy” thing was icky and disturbing and, many times, super hard to read. King was awful – he inflicted way worse trauma on these girls than the real world would have done.) And the ending, I loved loved loved the way it ended! That is the way, based on everything we have learned of how the girls were raised, what they were taught, and all the things they’ve already individually suffered at the hands of the few men they’ve known, it should have ended. I supported their choices wholeheartedly, from a narrative perspective. Very satisfying, within the context, and I can’t ask for more from an ending.
On the other hand, there were definitely a few things about this novel that left me wanting something more. The biggest thing, for me, is how vague all the references to the outside world and previous happenings in King’s little cult-like world were. I understand that that type of reference helped play into the unnerving and sinister ambiance, which was the shining glory of the novel, but still. There were some times that I just wasn’t sure what I was interpreting/understanding was correct – it was just a little too ethereal. And it made my connection to the story and its messages less robust than it could have been. Also, the timeline is, for me, slightly unrealistic. I feel like one week (ish) is just not enough time for all these emotional and sexual explorations to play out and then implode. After the appearance of the three men, literally the first men they’ve ever seen other than their father, it just seems unrealistic that their “defenses” (if you will) could ever lower to the degrees they lowered in such little time. It just frustrated me because it all seemed like nothing with as much substance as these relationships seemed to have had could have developed so quickly. I don’t know, perhaps it’s possible under the extreme, remote, and emotionally undernourished circumstances of Grace, Lia and Sky’s lives, but I’m not sure I was totally sold on it. It does help that the two who were most impacted (Grace and Lia) had the largest sections of narration, which gave a bit more depth to their development and insight to their actions/choices, but still. And it did seem strange to me, as a writing choice, that Sky was the only one who never got a voice (and based on the ages we get/assume) she was more than old enough to have one. I would have liked to hear her perspective and see, perhaps, her own interactions with the youngest of the “men,” for contrast and added complexity. Last, I was weirded out (both in my feels and as far as how I liked it as a plot device) by the role King had in the men’s appearance…and why their coming seemed like a legitimate and necessary plan for him to make. I just wasn’t sold there. Anyways, the bottom line as far as the entire plot goes, I kind of just wanted more. And while I cannot totally put my finger on what it is that I would have wanted, I know that it just didn’t stand its ground against the quality of the writing.
To sum up what turned into an incredibly long review. The writing and ambiance were amazing. The messages about the dangers of violence against women and the power they have to defend and support themselves/each other were spot on. The plot was less substantial and less well-defined than I was hoping for. Overall, a really solid read, one with chilling vibes that will keep you up at night.
Enjoy these passages that stood out to me:
“Refrain of the man, universal: This is not my fault!
See also: I absolve myself of responsibility.
And: I never said that. You can’t take the actions of my body as words.”
“You can think things into being. You can dwell them up from the ground.”
“Love…also taught me that loss is a thing that builds around you. That what feels like safety is often just absence of current harm, and those two things are not the same.”
“It is possible there are no safe places left. It is possible that we can create a new one with our rage and our love, that other women are already out there, doing the work. We are going to meet them. They will recognize us, no longer children, and hold out their arms to us. They will say, What took you so long?”