Book Review: The Grace Year by Kim Liggett (2019)

October 4th, 2019 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Rare is the book that actually merits a comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for misogyny, homophobia, violence – including rape – and suicide.)

“In the county, everything they take away from us is a tiny death. But not here . . .” She spreads her arms out, taking in a deep breath. “The grace year is ours. This is the one place we can be free. There’s no more tempering our feelings, no more swallowing our pride. Here we can be whatever we want. And if we let it all out,” she says, her eyes welling up, her features softening, “we won’t have to feel those things anymore. We won’t have to feel at all.”

“In the county, there’s nothing more dangerous than a woman who speaks her mind. That’s what happened to Eve, you know, why we were cast out from heaven. We’re dangerous creatures. Full of devil charms. If given the opportunity, we will use our magic to lure men to sin, to evil, to destruction.” My eyes are getting heavy, too heavy to roll in a dramatic fashion. “That’s why they send us here.”

“To rid yourself of your magic,” he says.

“No,” I whisper as I drift off to sleep. “To break us.”

I’ve started and stopped, cut and pasted this review so many times over the last few weeks that I’ve lost count. The truth is that The Grace Year left me speechless and, as with all of my favorite books, I’m afraid that nothing I might write will do it justice. This is the kind of book that merits a twenty-page thesis, not a 500-word review. (Though, let’s be honest, precious few of my reviews clock in at less than 1,000 words.)

You can gather the basics from the synopsis. Our protagonist, sixteen-year-old Tierney James, lives in a culture that hates and fears women. It’s believed that young women possess a powerful, dark magic; paradoxically, they’re also considered men’s inferiors. For the good of society, young women are banished from Garner County for the entirety of their sixteenth year.

The goal during the “Grace Year” is twofold: to purge the magic from their bodies so that they can return home pure and ready to be married – and to return home, period. Their wild and wicked magic; the harsh wilderness; and the poachers who aim to kill them and sell their bewitched body parts on the black market: all stand between the girls and survival.

The Grace Year follows Tierney and her cohorts as they claw, fight, manipulate, and straight up slay their way through 365 days of exile. Along the way, Tierney calls on her specialized knowledge – her dad is a doctor who always wanted a son, and thus “spoiled” his middle daughter by teaching her useful life skills – to try and change the system from the inside. She dreams of a young woman who carries within her the spark of revolution. She can only hope that her visions are more prophecy, less the random firing of neurons.

The story is told in four main parts, each corresponding to one season in Tierney’s Grace Year: autumn, winter, spring, and summer. There aren’t chapters to divvy things up further (at least there wasn’t in the ARC), which makes each section feel L-O-N-G (in a good way!). Whereas some reviewers complained about this format, I loved it: it gives the readers a sense of the slow passage of time as the Grace Year girls experience it, the weight of days differentiated from one another only by violence and death.

Usually I scoff when books are blurbed as “The Handmaid’s Tale meets XYZ,” but I think the comparison is more than warranted here: The Grace Year is The Handmaid’s Tale meets Lord of the Flies, with a dash of The Hunger Games meets Bridezillas for extra-crunchy complexity. There’s so much to unpack and dissect here.

In The Grace Year, Kim Liggett has created a semi-fictional world that could exist at (nearly) any time or place in history. The lack of modern technology – there are references to lithographs and gas lamps, and a distinct absence of electronics – hints at the past. Perhaps Garner County is an isolated community in 1800s America? Yet, without a detailed backstory of how Tierney’s community came to be, she and her ilk could just as easily live in some future dystopia, a society rebuilt from the ashes of a pandemic or world war. Or they could inhabit another ‘verse altogether. I love that the setting is open to interpretation, because it prevents us from dismissing Garner County as something from our past: a result of primitive and outdated beliefs that we have since moved beyond.

News flash: misogyny and homophobia (and racism, classism, ableism, etc.) are still alive and well. Just read the damn news, mkay.

Again just from the synopsis, it’s glaringly obvious that Tierney’s is a strictly religious and patriarchal society marked by rigid gender roles…but this summary hardly does it justice. Think: the fictional Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale. Or Women Talking, inspired by the very real mass rapes that took place in Manitoba County, a Bolivian Mennonite settlement.

In Garner County, women face myriad restrictions, including but not limited to the following:

– Women are branded with their father’s sigil at birth. They are quite literally owned by their fathers, until the time they are bartered and traded to would-be husbands. Needless to say, they have no say in who they marry.

– Young women who go unclaimed have three options open to them: they can become maids, field laborers, or prostitutes in the outskirts.

– Married women are required to perform their “wifely duties”: “Legs spread, arms flat, eyes to God.” In other words, wives are raped on the regular.

– Though it’s not stated outright, it’s safe to assume that birth control and contraception are outlawed, at least for married women. (Married) women are not allowed to determine how many children they bear, if any.

– It’s considered blasphemous to pray for a baby girl (because we’re worthless, see?).

– Women are only schooled until the age of ten.

– “All the women in Garner County have to wear their hair the same way, pulled back from the face, plaited down the back. In doing so, the men believe, the women won’t be able to hide anything from them—a snide expression, a wandering eye, or a flash of magic. White ribbons for the young girls, red for the grace year girls, and black for the wives. Innocence. Blood. Death.”

– “We’re forbidden from cutting our own hair, but if a husband sees fit, he can punish his wife by cutting off her braid.”

– “We’re not allowed to pray in silence, for fear that we’ll use it to hide our magic.”

– “The women of the county aren’t allowed to hum—the men think it’s a way we can hide magic spells.”

– Adult women cannot wear hoods or other protection against the elements: “After their grace year, their faces needed to be free and clear to make sure they weren’t hiding their magic. The wives scarcely went outdoors during those months.”

– “In the county, bathing with flowers is a sin, a perversion, punishable by whip.”

– “The women aren’t allowed to own pets in the county. We are the pets.”

– “The women aren’t allowed to congregate outside of sanctioned holidays.”

– If a girl does not return from the Grace year – either alive or in bottles – her female family members will be punished by banishment.

Some of these rules are universal to what you’d expect to see in a religious patriarchy: anything to keep women voiceless, segregated, and compliant. In a word, powerless. Others feel like loving throwbacks to The Handmaid’s Tale: for example, the scene where Tierney defiantly bathes with a flower brings to mind Offred, secreting away a pat of butter to moisturize her dry and purely functional (to Gilead) body.

One detail that jumps out at me is how the girls and women are pitted against each other, so that they exist in a perpetual state of competition rather than cooperation. Similar to what you’d see in FLDS communities, there’s a sizable gender imbalance in Garner County; created not by casting young men out, as is the polygamous Mormon way, but by drafting lower-class men as Guards, denying them wives, and then castrating them to prevent unauthorized pregnancies. (This is one obvious deviation from The Handmaid’s Tale, where lower-class men like Nick are at least allowed the hope that they may one day merit a Wife.)

Thus, there are more eligible wives than husbands – and as the position of wife is the “best” a young woman of Garner County can hope for (the gilded cage), women are pitted against each other. As if this isn’t offensive enough, the veil ceremony takes place immediately before the potential brides leave for their Grace Year. Picture it: you’re a scared sixteen-year-old girl who was just sentenced to a life of hard field labor; the only thing standing between an early, sun-baked death and a relatively cushy life as a wife and mother is a scrap of fabric. You’re alone and unsupervised, for the first time in your life; your body coursing with magic. What now?

Garner County has effectively incentivized murder – hence The Hunger Games meets Bridezillas. Not that state-sanctioned murder should come as a surprise: the death penalty is alive and well. See also: the poachers. In truth, not all of the Grace Year girls are meant to return home: not when they are sent into the wilderness with inadequate housing and provisions, and certainly not when they state sanctions poaching. Women are nothing if not expendable.

Magic is also a common theme but, as Tierney so astutely observes, men only seem to discover evidence of magic when it is convenient for them: “Like when Mrs. Pinter’s husband died, Mr. Coffey suddenly accused his wife of twenty-five years of secretly harboring her magic and levitating in her sleep. Mrs. Coffey was as meek and mild as they come—hardly the levitating sort—but she was cast out. No questions asked. And surprise, surprise, Mr. Coffey married Mrs. Pinter the following day.”

Women are so thoroughly indoctrinated that they question themselves whenever they have an impertinent thought or experience a flash of anger: “And I wonder if this is the magic taking over. Is this how it starts—the slip of the tongue? A loss of respect? Is this how I become a monster the men whisper of? I turn and run up the stairs before I do something I regret.”

Spoiler alert: magic isn’t real. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that magic, as it’s defined in Garner County, is not mysterious or supernatural in nature. Rather, magic is code for women’s anger. Magic is when a women speaks her mind and demands equal treatment. Magic is women working together to overthrow the patriarchy and create a new, more equitable society in which they are valued and respected. Magic is a tiny red flower. Magic is revolution.

(Here, I’m reminded of another book: Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger by Soraya Chemaly:

“Ask yourself, why would a society deny girls and women, from cradle to grave, the right to feel, express, and leverage anger and be respected when we do? Anger has a bad rap, but it is actually one of the most hopeful and forward thinking of all of our emotions. It begets transformation, manifesting our passion and keeping us invested in the world. It is a rational and emotional response to trespass, violation, and moral disorder. It bridges the divide between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought’ to be, between a difficult past and an improved possibility. Anger warns us viscerally of violation, threat, and insult. By effectively severing anger from ‘good womanhood,’ we choose to sever girls and women from the emotion that best protects us against danger and injustice.”)

It’s no wonder the men fear it.

Of course, not everyone is hip to the true nature of women’s magic, and it’s enthralling to see how this plays out in the little community formed by the Grace Year girls. I love how Liggett devises a very reasonable, if not mundane, explanation for the manifestation of the girls’ magical powers. And the power dynamics that arise out of this are pretty shrewd and insightful, with plenty of real-world consequences. This is how cult leaders are made. Or 45th presidents.

There’s so much more I want to rave about: The way that Liggett uses Hans to eviscerate the Nice Guy ™ trope. The kinship between women and animals, and the vegan feminist ethic that might arise from recognizing and honoring our similarities. The sheer, raw power (might I say “magic”?) of sisterhood. The seed of revolution that blossoms here.

The Grace Year may not take place in 2019 America, yet its lessons are painfully relevant today.

My only complaint – and it is not a minor one – is the complete absence of race from the narrative. Only a few of the girls are described in great physical detail; those that are all appear to be white. Do no women of color live in Garner County? If not, why not? Perhaps darker skinned women do exist, but simply are not valued as Wives in this white nationalist patriarchy. If this is the case, we’d expect to find them laboring in the fields, serving the white nuclear families, and bearing the brunt of toxic masculinity as sex workers in the outskirts. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, this is an egregiously weak spot in an otherwise powerful and engaging story.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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