Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of Kim Liggett’s novel, The Grace Year, in exchange for an honest review.
Garner County is ruled by men and those men enforce a rigid moral code through severe punishment and fear. As part of their fear tactics, all sixteen-year-old girls must retreat to the woods for what is termed as their “Grace Year.” Far from home, they will survive together in a rustic fort and get rid of “their magic.” The idea that teen girls possess powerful magic is a deeply held superstition that has all of the men in the community terrified and willing to send their daughters into harms way to dispel it. When the girls return from their “Grace Year”, they are forbidden to speak about it and the whole thing is shrouded in mystery, especially since many girls don’t return, and those who do are damaged, including missing limbs.
Tierney James is facing her “Grace Year” and her rebel heart makes her question the process. As she embarks on her journey, her experiences tell her to question everything, even if it means she could be killed, either by shadowy poachers who kidnap “Grace Year” girls to harvest their magical body parts, or by the patriarchy of Garner County, who don’t stand for dissent.
The Grace Year is young adult fiction that is a blend of The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale. It has the blood-sport, teens killing teens for survival and uncomfortable love triangle of the former, with the women rising against oppression of the latter.
Liggett has a created an intriguing premise and the first third of the book is a page-turner. I was hooked immediately. Mostly, I wanted to know the mystery of the “Grace Year” and to understand why girls were dying and getting maimed. It’s grotesque. I was particularly intrigued by the idea that there are poachers who flay the girls, selling their body parts as magical medicine. This is sick and stomach turning enough when we think of this happening to endangered animals, let alone teenage girls.
The Grace Year starts off like a shot, but has a soggy middle. The love story did not work for me and it distracted from the story of the girls. In a similar dynamic as Katniss in The Hunger Games trilogy, Tierney faces a situation of passionate love with a fiery partner vs. the less interesting, yet steady love of a guy who she has in the friend-zone. Like Katniss, Tierney is a strong woman, who makes it quite clear that there are more important things in her life than love. Tierney is very vocal in her desire to avoid marriage and to lead a life of working in the fields. She does not dream of romantic love, yet it seems to find her. It is possible for her to have a change heart or to be swept away in the moment, but I found the weight given to this aspect of the story, undermined the strength and spirit of her character.
The story redeems itself in the last third, where many of the mysteries are solved and where the women show their power. The strongest element of The Grace Year, is the concept of oppression. The women are not the only ones who are oppressed by Garner County’s rules. Anyone who tries to challenge or who dares to be different, is beaten, executed, or banished to the edge of town. The family members of unruly citizens, even very young children, can be punished. The banishment creates a whole different class of society; women who survive by prostitution and men who become the poachers. The people who are banished live through the mercy of those who are still in town. They are part of the ecosystem of Garner County, yet they exist on the edge of it. Their participation in superstition of the power of young girls is part of maintaining the patriarchy.
Garner County reminded me of Salem, Massachusetts during the infamous witch trials. During that time, Salem had both a strong patriarchal and religious culture with fear ruling the society. Punishment could be severe. The young girls who made accusations of witchcraft found their power in a society where they had none. The Grace Year explores this concept in opposite, as the “Grace Year” is not supposed to give girls power, but the concept of it is to break the girls and make them compliant as they head back to Garner County to be the property of men. As soon as they return, they will be either wives or workers, with communication between women a rarity.
Although the middle was a tad sluggish, I enjoyed The Grace Year. I read that Elizabeth Banks has optioned the film rights, with Liggett working on the screen play. The story is exciting with many unexpected twists. It is very cinematic and I can imagine that it would be a box-office hit.