The Girls Go Wild in The Grace Year

Hello, everyone! I’ve been mulling over Kim Liggett’s newest novel The Grace Year, which is a book that has been on my “to-read” list since it first came out in 2019. Described as “a speculative thriller in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Power,” The Grace Year is a story about a group of 16-year-old girls sent to survive a year in the wilderness so that they can lose their “magic” and rejoin their repressive misogynistic society. There’s a lot to like about the novel, especially in its inventive world-building and complex character relationships, but there’s also a lot about The Grace Year that feels inauthentic. In imagining a world so terrified of teenage girls that it would rather kill them than deal with their emotions, Liggett crafts a successful nightmare, but overdoses on hypothetical horror, resulting in a narrative that feels more like a parable than a recognizable dystopia.

I adore this cover, though!

Synopsis: Tierney James has always known that she wouldn’t get married. In Garner County, where girls outnumber boys two-to-one, only the most coveted girls receive a “veil” and a marriage proposal, while the rest are assigned to spend their life in the labor house or the field. Determined to retain control over her body, Tierney tries her best not to attract a suitor, but when veiling day comes, she discovers that she has been chosen by the town’s most eligible suitor, angering Kiersten, the town’s golden girl. Now forced to spend a year in the wilderness with Kiersten and 30 other Grace Year girls, Tierney must keep her wits about her as the girls start to succumb to their “magic,” and all hell breaks loose.

My thoughts: The Grace Year is less Handmaid’s Tale than it is a twisted hybrid of Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games, and The Bachelor. Liggett does an excellent job of replicating the power structure of autocratic regimes in the societal hierarchy of Garner County, where men rule supreme, and women are forbidden from humming or even dreaming for fear that they’ll express their magic. The girls are raised to compete with each other from birth for the boys’ attention, and with everyone incentivized to sell out their neighbors for their own gain, the the town bristles with resentment and distrust. Purity and loyalty are the prime feminine virtues, while independent thinking can earn women a sentence to hang from the Punishment Tree. Throw in the Grace Year, a one year period where all the 16-year-old girls are rounded up, dumped on an island, and forced to fend for themselves, and you have a situation primed for a bloodbath.

Liggett’s Grace Year, while modeled in part from The Lord of the Flies, is a truly inventive concept. Even though every woman in Garner County has lived through the Grace Year, they are forbidden from talking about it, so even though the surviving Grace Year girls arrive back home missing limbs, close to death from starvation, and traumatized beyond words, none of the new Grace Year girls have any idea what is in store for them. The Grace Year is supposed to be a rite of passage for the girls, but it’s also a way of thinning the herd. The girls face death on all sides, whether it be from a failure to survive in the wilderness, or from the threat of the poachers who capture runaways and sell their body parts. If the girls try to run away and aren’t captured by poachers, their own sisters will be punished and banished to live on the outskirts of town. It’s an ingenious way of breaking the girls’ spirits before marriage, and weeding out any girl independent enough to try to buck the system.

Our protagonist Tierney, whose father taught her essential wilderness survival skills, is the only one of the girls who tries to establish some semblance of order when the girls arrive at the camp, but she quickly realizes that it’s no use. The other girls are in thrall to Kiersten, who has convinced them that she has the magical ability to control others, and who uses the girls as pawns to try to bend Tierney to her will. The conflict between Kiersten and Tierney is the most story’s most gripping, as it shows how quickly even a taste a power can turn a powerless person into a despot. The Grace Year scenario is a true nightmare, as there is little in this world more frightening than being stuck on an island with dozens of angry, hungry, and emotionally-repressed teenage girls.

I also enjoyed the novel’s exploration of multi-faceted female relationships. Determined not to become a wife, Tierney has always kept herself apart from the other girls, which has caused them to resent her. When she tries to bring order into the camp and put her wilderness skills to use, the girls distrust her. Their distrust quickly turns to violence, and I appreciated how Liggett built real brutality into the conflicts between the girls, rather than employing catfights as the stereotypical depiction of female aggression. By showing how quickly the slightest hint of uncertainty can make the girls devolve into brutality, the novel demonstrates how societies built on systemic violence maintain their power. Like the citizens of Garner County, the girls fear what they don’t understand, and would rather extinguish uncertainty with force than try to reckon with it.

The part of the novel spent in the Grace Year camp is its most thrilling and emotionally resonant section. It’s only when the story spreads beyond the camp and tries to further expand upon the world-building that the narrative starts to unravel. The reason is that when you really think about the conventions of the Grace Year, it stops making sense, and creates questions that Liggett never answers.

Why, for instance, in a society with a shortage of men, would the county kill half of its child-bearing population every year? While I understand that the purpose of the Grace Year is to break the girls’ spirits so that they remain pliable and obedient to male rule, there are much better ways of doing that than murdering them. Tierney mentions in the novel that the Grace Year is one way of “culling the herd,” but what society culls the very members responsible for sustaining it? In the Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, women deemed unsuitable for society (i.e the unskilled infertile ones or those who morally transgressed) were banished or killed, but the fertile women were considered valuable property. They were forced to undergo mental reprogramming by the Aunts and subjected to violence, but they weren’t killed. In The Grace Year, the boys of marrying age choose the most “valuable” girls to marry before they leave for the Grace Year, but there is no guarantee that any of those girls will survive, which makes choosing them ahead of time extremely nonsensical. What if all of the girls died that year? Would that mean a whole lost generation?

Another part of the book that makes very little sense are the poachers. The poachers are the illegitimate sons of Garner County men and women who live on the “outskirts” of the county. Putting aside the fact that it makes no sense for a county with such a gender imbalance to even have illegitimate children, what makes even less sense is that these poachers earn a living by hunting and killing Grace Year girls and selling their body parts to Garner County citizens because they supposedly contain “magic.” While there are definitely societies in this world that sell the body parts of marginalized peoples, they don’t kill and consume the body parts of the people in their societal in-group! It’s not like these girls are outcasts, half of them were chosen to be married and to carry the next generation of children. And you’re telling me that the governing body of Garner County supports an entire class of workers whose job is to murder any random girl that sets foot out of the camp? Make it make sense!

I was expecting the poachers to be a myth that the county told the Grace Year girls to keep them from running away, so imagine my surprise to discover that they were real. The more you think about the mechanisms of the society, the less the society seems realistic. There are other little details that don’t make sense, like the fact that the girls are expected to be pure, but are tacitly encouraged to earn a marriage proposal from a boy by sleeping with him, or the fact that the girls aren’t supposed to be out by themselves, but Tierney spends her whole childhood tramping around the woods. There are too many embellishing details in the story and not enough structural details addressing how the society was founded, what time period the story is set in, or even where the story takes place. Is Garner County a secret nature preserve like in The Village? I guess we’ll never know.

These quibbles about logical consistency only matter if you were hoping that The Grace Year would be as realistic as The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s hard to match a novel that is an inimitable reflection of our society’s darkest timeline. Liggett’s book comes nowhere close to attaining that essence, and I don’t think it was trying to. Regardless of the book jacket comparisons (which are always overblown marketing ploys), The Grace Year is more about one girl’s struggle for survival in a restrictive world, rather than a statement about the world as a whole. It also feels very YA Fiction at times, with a forbidden romance and a love triangle sprinkled into all of the violence. Nevertheless, The Grace Year is a real page-turner. I finished it in about 1.5 days and enjoyed every second of the journey. It’s a harrowing horror story, not a the next feminist statement piece, and that’s perfectly fine with me.

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