The Grace Year — the Feminist Dystopian Novel That Had Me up All Night and Thinking for Days Afterwards.
Lately, I have needed distraction and my chosen vice books, piles and piles of them. I don’t really have the brain space for real grown-up books, so I went in for a YA novel!
Recently I was handed a book by a friend, and she said: “Here’s one you might like, it's Dystopian though, you gotta be in the mood for it”.
Boy, was I in the mood. I put the kids to bed and settled down around 9:30 pm and let's say I didn’t move at all until I had turned the last page at 4:30 in the morning. This was a terrible idea: I had work the next day, and I was little more than a zombie.
The book(written by author Kim Liggett in 2019) opens with our protagonist Tierney James, a feisty, intelligent young lady on her 16th year. She seems to live in a post-apocalyptic Middle America: the conservative religiosity runs real true and deep. In this town, women come in three flavours: wives, whores and nobodies in the fields. Women are said to come into their aphrodisiac “Magic” in their 16th year and thus are banished together on a pilgrimage of sorts to drain it out (aka break their spirits), cue, “The Grace year”.
Nobody speaks of the Grace Year, but the effects are hinted at, many young women who embark never return, and sometimes they do in ways they would rather not. In this world where women are treated as little more than possessions, Tierney dreams of either fading to mediocrity or rising to change the world.
Many reviews will say that this book is the intersection of The Handmaids Tale and The Lord of the Flies and you know what, they are absolutely right. The feminist dread of all the pitfalls of being a young woman is intensified by putting a bunch of adolescents together with zero supervision: Absolute carnage ensues.
What unfolds from this foundation is a tale of how women are pitted against each other for the favour of men. How Love can develop in the most unexpected places and lastly that Evil lurks in the friendliest faces. There’s a bit of a defunct love triangle in there, and until the last page, it was a toss-up whether Tierney would hang or live happily ever after.
I’m generally hard to please when it comes to dystopian fiction: I’ve read a lot and generally need a good hook to get settled in. This one had that hook in the character of Tierny: her angst is achingly familiar: almost every girl has had some part of her experience mirrored in her own. That wasn’t all though; I also got some gorgeous descriptions of heart-rending violence(I’m not a gore head, but do enjoy a well-dealt character death). The creeping anxiety really starts to steal into the room at about the 25% mark and never really leaves you after that.
It’s not often too that I hold my breath due to misbehaving skeletons: This well-crafted story walks that thin line where we have no clue which bits are real or magic and if the magic is of this world or not.
What sets this book apart from many other dystopian fiction novels is that while the setting is definitely fictional, none of the events seems too far out of the ordinary.
In the edition I read, the author's notes bring up the moment inspiration struck her to write(read the full interview at shewrites.com): She noticed a 13-year-old girl on a train platform, she saw an older man perv at her(because fair game right?) and an older woman size her up as “competition”. The Grace Year world has nothing new to this one we live in, only exaggeration, and that too not by much.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the author: “I think growing up is one very long grace year. I mean it’s brutal for girls, right? We place this impossible set of standards on them and project all of our fear and desire on them, and when they falter, they’re entirely to blame.”
All up, I’m glad I donated my sleep to this. Perhaps it was the right book for the right moment for me, but if you bump into it, I do recommend that you give it a stab: 9 out of 10 from me.