Harper Voyager (2008)
Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack (this review was originally published in 2009)
The Daughters of Moab presents initially as a science fiction novel; the blurb on the back certainly sounds that way, and the initial setting and scenes give that impression too. However, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that in many ways this is a fantasy. Personally, I think it works, but some readers may be a little disconcerted if they expect something that sits more strongly within one genre.
The Daughters of Moab is set in Australia, albeit an Australia of the near future that has been ravaged by a pandemic, religious mania, natural disaster, and a bomb. Westwood deliberately avoids using place names, but Australians – or readers familiar with Australia’s geography – won’t have much trouble attaching names to particular cities or locations. By not using names, however, Westwood adds to the slightly dreamlike sense of dislocation that much of the novel generates.
The Followers of Nathaniel (now known as Nathans) are a religious sect that had begun gaining power before the natural disasters that destroyed Australian society. Their main objective was to imprison and potentially destroy the Abominations – girls born either of the union of two mothers, or parthenogenetically from a single mother. Before the apocalypse they had managed to round up most of these children, called Transfects. Now they experiment on them; the Nathans harvest the girls’ blood, hoping to eventually be able to extract from it the secrets of the Transfects’ health and long life. Whatever is helping them flourish, the Nathans most definitely lack.
In fact, the society of the Nathans is starting to break down. There’s no sign of the rebirth they were promised; they’re growing old and ill; and life is frankly quite uncomfortable and dangerous these days. Eustace Crane II, their leader, is noticing a few cracks. Some of those cracks may be able to be addressed by Assumpta Viali, his personal assassin. However, Assumpta has her own agenda, and in enlisting her aid Eustace may be opening himself to a greater danger than the one he sought to avoid. Soon after the novel opens, Eustace sends Assumpta to track an escaped captive, Easter. The meeting between Easter and Assumpta sets in train a course of events likely to be devastating for everyone in the area.
Although the basic tenets of the science that actually occurs in the novel (as opposed to the slightly loony experiments of the Nathans) are sound enough, I doubt that much of it is actually executable. I don’t know how much that matters; this is a novel that veers increasingly towards the fantastical, and maybe all that matters is that it makes sense in the context of the novel – which it does. I liked the fact that the novel seemed to start in quite a solid, scientific way, and then moved away from this – it echoed the way so much of what the characters are doing is slightly off-kilter, and gets more and more off-kilter until we’re in a whole different way of thinking.
For me, the major weakness of the novel was the characters. I think Westwood has quite deliberately drawn the majority of her characters as isolated from each other and wrapped up in their own little worlds. In many ways this is a positive thing for the novel – it explains some of their behaviours, it helps power the breakdown of what society is left, and is a powerful depiction of how people might cope with a highly unpleasant situation. But for me, it meant I struggled to care about any of the characters. I was interested in the plot, and what was going to happen to them, but I didn’t really care. And ultimately, that made this a novel that I appreciated, and enjoyed – but probably wouldn’t include on a list of favorite novels.
This is a very strong novel in many ways. It’s a clearly envisaged setting and world, and Westwood conveys a strong sense of place and atmosphere. The plot is original and interesting, and there’s a sinister reality about the behaviour of the Nathans both before and after the cataclysm that destroyed the country. For me, ultimately, this wasn’t a novel I loved, because I found it hard to connect to any of the characters – none struck an emotional chord with me. Not everyone will have that problem, and many may therefore appreciate it more than I did. However, I did enjoy The Daughters of Moab, and I appreciated the strength of the novel in many other areas – I just wanted a little more warmth from the characters. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in good writing that is a little unusual and not confined by strict genre definitions.