Published by Wednesday Books on October 8, 2019
Genres: Young Adult, Dystopian
Pages: 407 •Format: E-Book •Source: Overdrive
No one speaks of the grace year. It’s forbidden.
In Garner County, girls are told they have the power to lure grown men from their beds, to drive women mad with jealousy. They believe their very skin emits a powerful aphrodisiac, the potent essence of youth, of a girl on the edge of womanhood. That’s why they’re banished for their sixteenth year, to release their magic into the wild so they can return purified and ready for marriage. But not all of them will make it home alive.
Sixteen-year-old Tierney James dreams of a better life—a society that doesn’t pit friend against friend or woman against woman, but as her own grace year draws near, she quickly realizes that it’s not just the brutal elements they must fear. It’s not even the poachers in the woods, men who are waiting for a chance to grab one of the girls in order to make a fortune on the black market. Their greatest threat may very well be each other.
With sharp prose and gritty realism, The Grace Year examines the complex and sometimes twisted relationships between girls, the women they eventually become, and the difficult decisions they make in-between.
There’s something exciting about going into a story knowing very little about it, and that was my experience with The Grace Year. I had, I suppose, read the synopsis at one time when I added it to my TBR way back when, however I tend to forget synopses really fast and only vaguely remembered it having a Handmaid’s Tale and Lord of the Flies vibe. I’ve been leery of dystopian for a while now since the YA market became so over-saturated with them a few years ago in the wake of The Hunger Games, but I find that more often than not I do end up enjoying the few I pick up, with The Grace Year being no exception.
The Grace Year is set in a rather ambiguous setting, and the vague world building aids in creating a creepy and unsettling backdrop for the story. As a reader, you never know if it’s set in the past, present or future, if the whole world is like “the county” or if they’re just some weird, isolated cult (it honestly gave me vibes similar to that horror movie The Village). Yet keeping the specifics murky really aided the overall tone, and rather than focusing on the wider political structure of the society the focus is on how the politics and societal expectations all manifest in the protagonist, Tierney. Tierney seems to be the only girl who questions the rules of the county and its horrifying tradition of The Grace Year, when teenage girls of a certain age are left to fend for themselves for a year and those who come back are mere shadows of themselves. The explanation is for the women to rid themselves of dangerous “magic,” but it’s really an exercise in patriarchal dominance, pitting the women against each other in an isolated environment that is a ripe environment for betrayal, paranoia and mistrust. It’s definitely a book that has horror-type elements, but the true horror is really what humans can do to each other.
There’s no shortage of horrors in this novel, from the physical, graphic incidents to the debilitating mental states the girls often find themselves in. Liggett truly makes you feel the desperation, the fear of barely clinging to survival, and the sheer will to live, all emotions that Tierney cycles through at various points throughout the story. At first I was concerned I wouldn’t like her as a protagonist, that she was going to be the “I’m not like other girls because I’m a tomboy” trope, but as the novel progressed the depth of Tierney’s resourcefulness, determination and strength eventually won me over. About midway through the novel I was worried my respect for the characters would start to due to the introduction of a romance (*cue me waving a large sign saying NOT EVERY BOOK NEEDS ROMANCE*) however it eventually serves an important, larger purpose in the overall plot of the book and I found myself thinking it was brilliant at the end.
Speaking of the ending, I was BLOWN AWAY by how the book wrapped up. I was NOT expecting the reveal that happened when the girls returned home from their Grace Year and it was really well crafted by the author. It took a situation that seems like would undermine everything Tierney fought for over the course of the year and inverted it to something she used to reclaim power and sow the seed of hope in a slowly blooming revolution. While the last few pages were so ambiguous I did find myself having to google how it ended to ensure I understood it correctly (which I’m still honestly not sure if I understand) it’s a book that left me reeling for days and one that I know will stick with me. I desperately wish we had a sequel, but I also thinking there’s strength in the ambiguity of the ending.
Overall: This is a story about horrors and despair, exploring the disturbing depths humans can sink to. However, it is also a story of small kindnesses, though exercised infrequently or unexpectedly, that can strengthen hope and resolve in even the bleakest of circumstances. How one person’s kindness can be enough to spark an ember that could lead to massive change.