There’s an attraction, certainly, in joining a cult. Not a Sheryl Sandberg working women type cult but a good old fashioned we’re all in it together wearing hemp skirts type cult. No need to chivvy the nanny, check the Blackberry or prepare for 8am meetings. Simply pack the children off to daycare (the yard) and hoe some vegetables. That’s pretty much it for the day – apart from some worship and chatting to close female friends – until it’s time for hallucinogenic weeds and sex with a man who says he loves you.
Amity & Sorrow, the debut novel for new imprint Tinder Press by Peggy Riley, explores the appeal of polygamous cults. It begins brutally, a crash that leaves the occupants of the car as bewildered and disorientated as the reader. The middle of Oklahoma: the three women do not know where they are, only that four days’ drive away lies both the commune which, consumed by fire, they have escaped and the husband and father they are convinced is now tracking them down.
They have hit a tree providing shade for a disused gas station, an outpost for a lonely farm. The farmer has only a few words for them: ‘Go home’. They stay. First in the station, then on the porch and finally in the house. And as mother and daughters piece together their lives, we assemble their backstory.
Amaranth was the first lost soul that Zachariah, an opportunistic and charming self-titled Messiah, scooped up and sheltered. She was surprised but then resigned as the others arrived: lone women browbeaten by bad fortune. Forty-nine of them. And they became her family. And her friends. And she had to share her husband’s bed with them all.
Sorrow and Amity are the fruits of her marriage. As firstborn, Sorrow – bound to Amity, by a strap between their wrists – is the Oracle. She has been privy to a sign that portends the final coming. The Messiah died within her. In the crash she suffered a miscarriage but the blood is a small trickle compared to the floods that will ensue. Determined to find a way back to her father and the high status he bequeathed her, she is recalcitrantly loony, a foil to the naïve curiosity of her sister. Amity wonders at what we take for granted: at reading, at Doritos and at television. She visits a library, ‘the House of the Grapes of Wrath’, in search of another copy of the Steinbeck but almost comes out with Viticulture for Fun and Profit.
The pace is fast but the tone is mostly heavy, portentous, spare and the tense present till we lurch back to what has gone before. The symbolism is imposing. The women were never allowed to cross the fields around the commune – barriers against the world – and as they venture out, they think more independently. The farmer’s life, lonely ever since his wife left, is disrupted; but as Amaranth begins to clear out the stale goods in his cupboards and plant the seeds she finds there, it becomes a beginning for them both.
This isn’t the mark of a debut novelist unable to resist easy metaphor or satisfying symmetry. Rather, it reflects the perspective of women who have been brought up to decipher the end of the world in every twitch of nature.
There’s a fascination with the certainty and stability of cult life; a sympathy to its appeal. On one hand their life was once regimented by patriarchy; on the other, this gave stability and meaning they wouldn’t otherwise enjoy. In England we don’t have quite the same amount of religious creativity, but Riley is keenly aware of America’s past. Polygamy once ensured that some women weren’t abandoned, just supplemented, thus preventing the growth of an underclass of women without protection or family. Sunday preachers still litter the airwaves and clutter up small town squares with rolling offers of salvation. Jonestown is just as much a by-word for the seventies as Watergate. Riley uses that lexicon and the cult is a familiar cut and paste of what we’ve all seen on newsreels.
There’s one fundamental problem – quite lethal to the dream of polygamy. Most women don’t like sharing. And in Amity & Sorrow quite why they might feel that way becomes horrifyingly clear.
Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley is published by Tinder Press (£14.99)