The novel Dietland by Sarai Walker (she/her) totally changed my world when it came out in 2015. Here we are, seven years later, and you can bet my expectations were high for Walker’s new novel, The Cherry Robbers. Pitched as a story about the Chapel family, who made their riches on gun manufacturing during the Civil War, The Cherry Robbers synopsis suggests it’s a ghost story. The mother of the family is haunted by those killed with a Chapel gun. “Ooooh, a ghost story. I love it!” I thought as I bought the hardcover novel.
The novel opens in 2017. Famous living painter Sylvia Wren is home alone in New Mexico while her life partner is in Brazil. New Mexico, painter — I’m getting Georgia O’Keeffe vibes. A total recluse, little is known about Sylvia, and her fan mail is handled by her partner (when she’s home). But when Sylvia decides to get her own mail one day, she opens a letter from a journalist who claims to know who Sylvia really is: the famous daughter who disappeared in the 1950s, Iris Chapel, last living child of the Chapel family. How dare some journalist threaten Sylvia! The letters keep coming, and Sylvia decides to let her story out, but on her own terms. And thus we get the three blue diaries.
The majority of The Cherry Robbers is about the Chapel daughters. Their father is always working, and largely uninvolved. Their mother, Belinda, has screaming terrors much of the night, a condition she’s had since birth. For as far back as she’s aware, the women in Belinda’s family have given birth to a daughter and died in the process. Thinking she can avoid the same fate, Belinda remains unmarried much of young adulthood until her brother confirms he will no longer support her. Get married, or get in the gutter, seem to be the options. Belinda marries into the Chapel family, and her husband feels it is her duty to let him have sex with her. Six daughters are born, and still Belinda lives.
Then, when her eldest turns twenty, Belinda predicts a horrible future, like some sort of clairvoyant: the Chapel daughters cannot get married or they will die. One by one, the Chapel sisters get married (or have sex; see the title) and die. Narrator Iris Chapel (Sylvia in the present) is the 5th out of six sisters, and so she must endure death after death, people calling her mother crazy, and her father in denial.
While The Cherry Robbers is totally readable, Walker gave away too much in the beginning. Because we know Sylvia is 80-something in the present, the story loses tension. She must have escaped, she must not have married or had sex with a man at any point, she must not have birthed children. Thus, as the sister ahead of Iris dies, I had no fear that she, too, would come under threat. In a way, the story grows predictable: meet some random guy, fall in love in two months, get married, die after the wedding night. Where’s the subversive nature of Dietland? Where is the deeper message about women having to rely on men for security? And goodness, where are the ghosts?? I’m starting to think that ghostly Gothic synopsis was a PR hook.
I actually wanted more about the mother’s family, especially the part about the Chapel father telling Belinda that she must give herself to him sexually, as it is her duty. That part is so brief, but I almost wonder if marital rape is his crime and the death of his daughters upon first sexual experience with a man is punishment. It’s in the book, but for a 420-page novel, it is such a small, small part.
Although it’s an interesting novel, The Cherry Robbers leaves many questions that get lost in plot holes.
CW: self-harm, attempted suicide, marital sexual coercion.