In Peggy Riley’s début novel Amity & Sorrow, three women escape a cult and the charismatic leader who preached that the end is nigh. Amaranth flees her husband, his forty-nine other wives and the cult in which she raised her two daughters, Sorrow, who has the gift of prophecy, and Amity, who hovers on the brink of adolescence, trailing helplessly after her sister as Sorrow spirals out of control. Constantly looking over her shoulder, Amaranth is torn between fear that her husband will catch them and guilt over the myriad crimes to which she turned a blind eye on the compound. Riley wisely allows Amaranth’s backstory to unfold gradually – far from the innocent, sheltered wife, she was a former wild child who fell in love with the wrong man. Her need to believe that they are building a better world allows her to retreat into a fantasy, and eventually raise her children in it. When that world comes to a dramatic end, in what appears to be a Waco-style group suicide pact, she is forced back into reality to confront the consequences of her actions.
She crashes her car in Oklahoma and crashes into the lives of a divorced farmer, his assistant and surrogate son Dust, and his possibly-senile father. In conjuring up the desolate and decaying American Midwest, Riley calls on The Wizard of Oz as well as Steinbeck, the children blown out of their own world and into a strange new country where they cannot identify friend or foe. Barren to Bradley, who struggles to make a living, it is nonetheless magical to Amity, crippled by rules and restrictions from the compound – never to walk into a field, never to speak to a man or wear her hair uncovered – and Amity’s gut-clenching fear as each rule is broken or discarded is the most powerful part of the novel. The reality of living under such a strict regime is well illustrated, as is the appeal of the seemingly simpler, well-ordered life that Amaranth believed she was trading the outside world for.
Amaranth’s relationship with the farmer shifts from submissive wife in search of a substitute husband and father for her girls to a woman in the throes of a sexual re-awakening, and Amity begins to feel the first confused stirrings of desire for Dust, who seems only to have eyes for her sister. Sorrow herself is miscarrying a baby she believed would be the Second Coming and who, it is revealed with an understated and resigned inevitability, is the product of her father’s repeated attempts at ‘making God’. This should be a cliché, but Riley handles it deftly.
Billed as a novel about ‘God, sex and farming’, Amity and Sorrow tries to be a number of things – coming-of-age novel, a critique of patriarchal religious communities, a wistful love story and a painful tale of abuse and misplaced trust. It’s to Riley’s credit that she succeeds in each attempt, and her assured voice and insightful writing suggest that a new major talent has emerged.