‘No one speaks of the grace year. It’s forbidden.
Girls are told they have the power to lure grown men from their beds, drive women mad with jealousy. They believe their very skin emits a powerful aphrodisiac, the potent essence of youth, of a girl on the edge of womanhood. That’s why they’re banished for their sixteenth year, to release their magic into the wild so they can return purified and ready for marriage. But not all of them will make it home alive.
Sixteen-year-old Tierney James dreams of a better life—a society that doesn’t pit friend against friend or woman against woman, but as her own grace year draws near, she quickly realizes that it’s not just the brutal elements they must fear. It’s not even the poachers in the woods, men who are waiting for their chance to grab one of the girls in order to make their fortune on the black market. Their greatest threat may very well be each other.’
I really enjoyed The Grace Year and applaud the many connotations of its narrative and the metaphors contained within. In a world of male oppression, young women are believed to grow into a magic that grants them the ability to bewitch men and endanger society, and so they are sent away into the wild, supposedly to rid themselves of this magic so that they can become proper, obedient wives. However, the reality of what the girls are led to believe about themselves and the ‘necessity’ of the male enforced grace year is far from the truth – at least to the women who have endured and survived it, the men of the village conditioned by other men to maintain its tradition and their hold over the women in their lives.
One of the things that struck me most about The Grace Year is how it handles the matter of how society pits women against women from an early age. Ours is not a world in which women are encouraged to support each other, particularly with the media portraying women as enemies, rivals and threats to each other instead of exploring the friendships and sisterhood that it should be taking the time to present as a healthier message for young women. The girls of The Grace Year are brought up to believe other women are rivals for their role as the perfect wife and mother of many sons, a role only a few of them will be claimed to fulfil, the rest sent to work if they survive the grace year. They have no control over their futures, for the men arrange the marriages among themselves as if the girls are no more than animals, and have final say on who is to become a wife, leading this uncertainty to only heighten the competitive nature that takes hold of many. An element that I found particularly heartbreaking is the threat held over the girls leaving for the grace year, in that, if they do not return or their bodies are not retrieved (and worse) and identified, their little sister(s) are banished from the village, one of the only secure female bonds many might have exploited to force them into participation. There are hints, here and there, of an understanding and a bond between those who have survived, and I don’t want to reveal any specific spoilers, so I’ll settle for saying that these are some of the moments that I loved the most.
I’m more than a little dubious about the need for a lead female character to find a man and fall in love by a novel’s conclusion, yet its significant impact on the narrative in this case is one that meant that, while I wasn’t too sold on the relationship itself, I found I wasn’t entirely opposed to it, despite some concerns about Tierney’s age (something that only makes the lives of all the women in the village more harrowing). The matter of the age of the girls and the events that unfold is a deliberately unsettling construction, in that they are set to be wives before they are truly women, their identities and choices stolen from them before they have a chance to discover who they really are, and in this instance and this dystopian setting it is far from the most disturbing element of society.
I have to say that, despite all the positive messages about the need for feminism and why women should aim not to embrace society’s suggestion that they are each other’s enemies – in-fact the myriad of representations of women and explorations of sisterhood and friendship – I was a little disappointed to discover that the novel closes with lines about a man and not a focus on the more beautiful and haunting elements of the story. However, The Grace Year is a fantastic read and one I highly recommend picking up a copy of when it’s released on September 17th!
I received an e-ARC of The Grace Year from Netgalley and the publisher. Thank you!