Devils and Dust – ‘Amity and Sorrow’ by Peggy Riley

amityI had high expectations for ‘Amity and Sorrow’. Expectations that, sadly, weren’t met.  I have exactly the same reservations about Claire Tiffany’s Everyman’s Guide to Scientific Living, so clearly ‘troubled relationships that take place on farms’ is a genre I should avoid. Whilst there are obvious comparisons between the two, they differ markedly in one important respect. In Tiffany’s novel, it is science that lays her characters low. In contrast, Riley uses that dastardly enemy of many a novel, religion.

The novel opens with a car accident. A lady and her two children crash into a tree. They are on the run.  It soon becomes clear they are not entirely normal; refugees from a bygone era. Members of a religious cult, Amarantha and her two girls, Amity and Sorrow, have only recently arrived in the real world.  They were members of an isolated cult, by their dress, possibly Amish. The cult is polygamous; so no, not Amish then. Mormons? The cult is, in fact, entirely fictitious, made up from little bits of cult folklore.  It’s a believable cabal.  Something has now gone terribly wrong.

The novel opens with Sorrow having a miscarriage, and from the outset the question of the baby’s parentage gives the reader a sense of unease. The three women are helped by a farmer, whose land they were on when they crashed. He is on the breadline. His farm struggling to make ends meet as he desperately tries to grow the latest money making cash-crop. The town he lives in is dying, cut off from civilisation by the freeway.

The novel is nicely set up. The three female characters are placed opposite three men. The farmer, Bradley, his adopted son, Dust and Bradley’s infirm father. Hanging over them is the spectre is Amarantha’s husband. Will he follow and what will he do if he catches them?

Part of the problem for me, is that almost nothing happens that you don’t expect. Given the set up outlined above, if I asked you to write three things that were going to happen, you’d almost certainly get them right. This is almost offset by some great characterisation. The men are all well-drawn. Believable, iron hard, but with a fragility that the girls can’t help but test.

Amity and Sorrow have never been in the real world. Their world-view is entirely dominated by the dogma of their father. The relationship between the two girls is well portrayed; sibling rivalry played out in spades. Sorrow is the older sister and she had the dubious pleasure of being her father’s chosen one.  The Oracle for their community. The girls father has taken religious parallels to extremes, but despite his sickening attentions, Amity can’t help but feel inferior to her big sister. The two sisters then vie for the attentions of the only eligible male in the novel, Dust, with predictable consequences.

The difference in their understanding of the the world is also interestingly handled.  Amity is younger, so her comprehension of their predicament is diminished on one level, but without her sister’s extra years of brainwashing, she is more able to see the realities of their situation. Her road to recovery is faster than that of her sister’s.  Sorrow’s psyche is so deeply in the mire, she can do little other than adhere to her father’s doctrine.  It’s a well-observed juxtaposition.

The relationship between Amarantha and Bradley, I found less interesting and no less predictable. Though touchingly handled, it didn’t do very much for me. The best sections of the novel were the tentative steps taken by Amarantha and the girls at entering (re-entering in Amarantha’s case) society.  Television carries religious messages, but also wanton sin. Churches and religious groups in town, claim to be the one true path to salvation. How would this claim feel to someone who has only heard their own brand of religion and their path is the right one? It’s an interesting device.

Ultimately, the showdown that has to happen, happens. Although its outcome is slightly unexpected, it didn’t particularly stir me. Which I think sums up the novel. There are some great passages of writing, built around an interesting premise, but I didn’t particularly empathise with Amity and Sorrow’s fate. I’m can’t put my finger on why I didn’t engage with the story, after all, all the elements are there.  Ultimately, I found Amity and Sorrow to be dry and rather flat, making its setting on the parched plains of Oklahoma, a trifle unfortunate. Disappointing.

My Copy of this book was obtained through the Amazon Vine programme. 

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