SURVIVE THE YEAR.
No one speaks of the grace year. It’s forbidden.
In Garner County, girls are told they have the power to lure grown men from their beds, to 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 a chance to grab one of the girls in order to make a fortune on the black market. Their greatest threat may very well be each other.
Warnings: physical violence and gore, gendered violence, lynching, starvation, scene of childbirth with complications
The Grace Year is being listed as a dystopia and I would say that doesn’t entirely describe it – the violence experienced by the women in the Grace Year is very much a part of our world; there is a historical aspect to the setting, instead, with their corsets, the witch trials like execution, and the attitudes towards female purity. In any case, the book is mainly about misogyny and more specifically, internalized misogyny. Divided into five parts for each of the seasons, and one for the end of their banishment, the story tells the story of an ongoing ‘rite of passage’ for all the girls of the town in their 16th year – where they are banished to an encampment on an island, and have to survive the year and ‘burn out their magic’.
“It’s the same dress she wore on her veiling day four years ago. It smells of lilac and fear.”
The first part – Autumn – is full of injustices and the bullying the girls, and specifically, Tierney, have to face. She describes how the men in the town treat their wives like broodmare, exchanging for a new one when they are tired of the old one simply by accusing the latter of harboring magic. The girls are mere property, even in death, where their parts are used in the apothecary, and the pervasive rape culture filled me with enough ‘WTF’ to go around for the whole book. In the encampment, the theme is internalized misogyny with Kiersten taking every opportunity to bully her and the other girls joining in because they have been taught to mistrust each other. Tierney’s attempts to use her survival skills to build them drinking and eating supplies go in vain, as Kiersten manipulates the girls into believing they all have magic that they need to use up. Tierney doesn’t believe in the magic, but things go crazy for quite a while, and the threat of poachers outside the fence and the fate of her younger sisters keeps her from running.
“They can call it magic. I can call it madness. But one thing is certain. There is no grace here.”
As the story goes on, she learns to see the truth beyond what she already knows. While she has been more enlightened than the other girls, she still has had a blind spot due to her preconceived notions. There’s an understanding of the violence, and a gentler resolution to it; the book doesn’t make any wild explosive claims of a happily ever after, but delivers us a conclusion that makes us hope for more. With an open ending, Tierney’s story may well deserve another installment, but the point that this story was trying to drive home was already well done so yes, it succeeded in telling the story it wanted to.
Overall, it is an evocative and feminist story about growing up as women, with careful attention to nuances about power and privilege.
“We hurt each other because it’s the only way we’re permitted to show our anger. When our choices are taken from us, the fire builds within. Sometimes I feel like we might burn down the world to cindery bits, with our love, our rage, and everything in between.
Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Wednesday Books, via Netgalley.
Released on October 8, 2019