Two sisters sit, side by side, in the backseat of an old car.
The world can be a very confusing place, especially if you’ve never really lived in it. The young sisters in Riley’s Amity and Sorrow literally crash into the modern world after their scared mother forces them to run from the fundamentalist life they’ve always known. Exploring the world of religious sects, polygamous societies and end-of-the-world cults, Riley’s debut novel slowly unravels the history of this strange on-the-run family as they begin to understand the danger of misplaced faith.
This novel deals with the darker issues related to cult worship both eloquently and sensitively, making sure to step away from the overtly graphic by way of flashbacks and third person narrative. This created distance is definitely in keeping with the tonality of Riley’s story, which is quite spaced (possibly to reflect the culture shock of the family in the modern world), but unfortunately resulted in a slightly disappointing read.
With such a rich and complex choice of subject matter I felt that Riley could have opened her novel out a lot more. She could have made more of the exploration behind the motivations of a woman who, effectively, began (as the first wife) a polygamous cult with her husband only to then leave it. There are questions raised throughout the story that are only lightly explained such as why does the eldest child have such unfailing loyalty to the beliefs of an abusive father and what tribulations does the youngest go through as she adapts to the modern world whilst trying to hold onto her past. I just think if Riley were to have delved a little deeper, the novel may have offered a more satisfying result.
Amity and Sorrow is written in a very measured style that, though nicely reflecting the traditions of the tale and characters, can also create a rather slow pace when reading. I came to this story thinking it would be about the strength of escape and finding the courage in freedom and it is, but to a point. The concept of sisterhood and discovering untapped female unity and strength is soon dissolved when Aramanth (the mother) immediately ‘settles’ for the first man she happens upon in the ‘free world’. Her actions at the end towards her eldest daughter leaves a lot to be desired and almost destroyed the characterisation of her entirely. The dichotomy of character in the two sisters is, however, interesting and exceptionally well placed. How each chooses to establish themselves in a world away from their organised faith is very telling and I just wish Riley had explored this further.
Amity and Sorrow is a relatively easy read and opens up discussion about complex issues and complex (but unfortunately closed off) characters. I would recommend it as a good book group novel as it raises conversation about the power of words and the manipulation of the concept of faith – especially when you consider that not everyone wants to be saved.