One part Lord of the Flies and one part The Handmaid’s Tale, Kim Liggett’s YA dystopia The Grace Year plunges readers into a terrifying and timely examination of the human condition and women’s relationships with each other in a fragmented society.
This book reads as a literary classic, hitting similar gritty, thought-provoking notes to that of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. I could not put it down. And even after several weeks of having finished this book, I can’t help but think about it. Liggett writes sharp and elegant prose. It is not as heady or wordy as classic literature, but the hard-hitting ideas are there.
Set in the fictional town of Garner County, The Grace Year follows sixteen year-old tomboy Tierney James. In this setting, the men believe that young women possess “magic,” the kind that lures men into infidelity and the kind in which drinking their blood grants health and youth. That is why for every girl’s sixteenth year they embark on what is called “The Grace Year,” a time when they are all exiled into the wilderness outside of the safety of the town in order to “purify” themselves of their “magic” for an entire year. When Tierney begins her Grace Year journey with all the other sixteen year old girls, she quickly discovers that the greatest danger in the wild is not the creatures lurking in the shadows or even the human poachers waiting to snatch an unsuspecting girl and drain her of her blood. No, the biggest threat is each other. Trapped in a camp full of girls that would be more than happy to see her dead, Tierney must come to grips with the fact that she may not be coming home.
While the themes of feminism and how society shapes the individual are prevalent, what struck me the most while reading this was how real the characters felt.
We have Tierney James (her name a tad on the nose, methinks) and her desire to be able to make her own choices. Instead of being a housewife that pumps out children, she wants to work out in the fields (a job incredibly low in social status) so that she can be free to be her own person. When a close friend of hers unintentionally takes away her freedom by saving her from a life in the fields, Tierney feels betrayed and filled with rage. What should have been a joyous thing for her tastes bitter. It feels like Tierney is being constantly betrayed in this book. Every time she tries to help herself or someone else in the Grace Year camp, it blows up in her face. She reacts in the most human way possible — she runs away. Everything Tierney does feels real. She wants freedom, and she’ll do what she can to get it, even if it means abandoning the other girls in the camp. Liggett is not afraid to dabble in gray characters, and I love it.
Ryker is another example of a gray character that feels incredibly authentic. He’s a poacher, which means his job is to kill and harvest Grace Year girls. At the same time, he’s doing it to save his family from a life of poverty and danger. He also nurses Tierney back to health. He seeks freedom just like Tierney — a life free of being a poacher. He also seeks love and beauty in this dark world.
The other male lead, Michael, is perhaps one of the few all-good characters in the book. Michael is a stud. The book makes me love him very much, and he needs to be protected at all costs. He is a beautiful picture of what a true man could be and what we need them to be in this world. His love for Tierney is beautiful and self-sacrificial.
Finally, I have to mention Kiersten, one of the main antagonists. She is what caused this book to be something beyond a horrifying dystopian — an insightful commentary on what true humanity is like. When all reasons for Kiersten to be cruel are removed in the story, she still acts without mercy. She still wants Tierney to die. Kiersten wants power, she only thinks of herself, and she’ll do anything to get it. Kiersten serves as a chilling reminder of what humanity could be if we are not thoughtful about our actions towards each other and are not self-aware.
Honestly, all of the girls’ relationships in this book made me want to scream. Why do women have to be so horrible to each other? But, sadly that is a reflection of reality. Liggett does leave a light at the end of the tunnel at the end of the book, but the story does not arrive there just yet. We can see the path to hope, and that is enough to leave me satisfied.
Overall, The Grace Year gripped me by the throat and would not let go until I finished. This book has truly horrifying scenes, but also profoundly beautiful ones. It is an experience that I am hesitant to say I enjoyed only because it was so painful to read during certain moments. If you want a more thought-provoking commentary on human beings and female relationships, then I highly recommend this book.