Survive the year.
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.
The Grace Year refused to dissipate and hung like a poisonous vapor long after I finished it, pervading every corner of my room like a simmering toxin. The feeling was a violent plunge encompassing revulsion and sorrow far beyond the personal: a sick, scorching nausea at humanity’s violence against itself since the dawn of time. And though the ending was more hopeful than grim, I felt my anger still brimming and unspent.
So what’s this book about?
They call it the Grace Year—using so innocuous a word to obscure so hideous a truth. And no one talks about what happens during the Grace Year. About the girls who return with blunt, brutal looks, a residue of old violence about them. Their youth curdled into something ragged and despairing, as though life had been leached out of them in aspects impossible to repair.
Tierney James had defined herself as a rebel all her life. Had rejected the choices, the limits the world gave her. But in Garner County, women’s lives run straight as planks, however they try to twist. There where women and girls are believed to harbor devilish magical powers that allow them to reach into men’s minds and sway them, to bend their wills like smiths bend hot iron. And because the rumors fell from men’s lips, the town had good reason to lend it credence.
When Tierney turns sixteen, it is her turn to embark on the Grace Year. Banished to an isolated compound, the Grace Year Girls have to live on the sharp edge of starvation, half-mad with their own circling, heartsick with the sameness of their days. But worse than that—even worse than the poachers prowling the edges of their prison, smelling their fear like sharks smell blood, ready to pounce and devour—was a darkness creeping evilly upon the girls’ senses. Here was a real line between life and death, and they might stand upon it for a time. The fortunate ones don a veil, as red as the sins they’re supposed to expunge, symbolizing a promise for marriage once the Grace Year is over. The less fortunate ones have only a life of labor—or worse—waiting for them.
If indeed any of them had even a single day to look forward to.
Maybe the reason no one speaks of the grace year is because of us. How could the men live among us, lie with us, let us care for their children, knowing the horrors we inflict upon one another . . . alone . . . in the wilderness . . . in the dark?
This is the premise that dramatically sets the stage for The Grace Year, and it’s the stuff of nightmares.
The beginning of this book held my eyes rooted to the page. The novel, however, soon changes gear and, for a while, is primarily involved with the dislocation of Tierney’s life during the Grace Year—both physical and emotional. So submerged and embattled with fatigue and desperation and unable to shake off the sense of being watched, of being measured by eyes none of them could see, there rose a sensation that Tierney was undoing herself, unwinding herself thread by thread, rags and tatters falling away from her. That’s when her narrative voice becomes detached, sort of grayish and dullish and faraway-seeming.
This is echoed multitudinously by the prose-rich passages of hallucinogenic accounts, and it makes for an uneasy read sometimes. For a while, every turn of the page felt—at least to me—like pressing forward through an endless briar patch. Fortunately, the author doesn’t overextend herself awfully much, and tackling a few extra pages of such lavishly descriptive prose as filtered through Tierney’s evocative voice is a meager price to pay for a such a bold, affecting read.
There are plenty of enjoyable set pieces here, and I’m genuinely in awe of how the author craftily spins moldy, malignant straw into warm and shimmering gold.
Misogyny is, of course, the narrative’s destructive force (both deeply antiquated and too immediate to dismiss). The story emphasizes the brittleness of a male-dominated society that wears fear and ignorance the way most men wear their clothes and strives, relentlessly, to stiffen female individuality into silence, and underscores how corrosive to the soul it is grow up as a young woman saddled with generations of toxic, abusive patriarchal demons. Kim is so skilled an author and the case she makes is so dramatically compelling—and so horrifyingly substantiated—that the book never seems overbearingly didactic.
The author also makes no bones about the fact that the real monsters are not the women who are cruel to one another in order to fit into a male space, it’s the men who use women to their benefit, pitting them into competition, turning them against each other—with a bright, horrible relish—to fight for a token role. Internalized misogyny is an idea that runs deep in the veins of the novel and the author confronts it with brilliance and verve.
“We hurt each other because it’s the only way we’re permitted to show our anger. When our choices are taken from us, the fire builds within. Sometimes I feel like we might burn down the world to cindery bits, with our love, our rage, and everything in between.”
If I had to point out a few other quibbles, it would be that the emerging love story is not only handled unevenly overall in the book but I’m not sure it’s altogether convincing. In fact, it winds up being more window dressing than anything else, and the novel could have done without. The unwieldy list of characters also doesn’t meld well with the frenetic style; there is not really enough time to spend with each of them and their characterization is so flimsy that they easily disappear into the cracks of the story.
That said, The Grace Year is a pretty solid read—so specific, and yet so universal.