According to the Psychiatric Times, one percent of people have been involved with a cult. According to your local bookseller, though, at least 20 times that proportion of literary fiction readers have had some contact with a novel about a cult — and that number, friends, is rapidly rising.
Not that the Ash Family, eponymous commune of Molly Dektar’s debut novel, would call themselves a cult. They prefer something much more grandiloquent: they call their North Carolina compound the “real world,” in contrast to this fake world of smoke and mirrors and blog posts and antibiotics.
We see their world through the eyes of Berie, who decides to play hooky from her freshman year of college to hop in a truck with Bay, a dirty dude with “a busted-looking face and gentle canine eyes” whose idea of flirting is to poke a red-hot stick into an infected wound his passenger got from a rusty splinter while breaking into a house to steal winter coats because “property” is an illusion.
It’s hard to see the Ash Family’s attraction, an early deficit the novel never quite makes up. Dektar throws Berie — who becomes “Harmony” in the family — straight into her new life, so we largely have to take the narrator’s occasionally expressed word for it that the first two decades of her life have left her troubled and discontent.
The family’s rule is that you either spend three days with them, or a lifetime. Once Harmony’s trial period has elapsed, Dektar starts jumping spans of weeks and months with surprising speed. That allows her to describe the changing of seasons and the rhythms of the family’s (more or less) self-sustaining farm life, but it leaves character development stretched uncomfortably thin.
Harmony’s landed in a wild, foreign, uncomfortable, and pretty scary situation, but after a few colorful incidents we’re given to understand that she soldiers along and even comes to love her new family life. There are only a few key family members we learn much about, one of whom is a friend named Queen. It’s obvious that Harmony’s relationship with Queen will cause problems, because otherwise there won’t be much of a plot.
As the seasons come and go, Dektar puts Harmony through a series of mystical and metaphorical tests that become ever more troubling, but never really conveys a sense of struggle. Harmony seems like a spectator of her own life, in a manner that seems more a product of style than substance.
What we learn about Harmony’s actual wants and needs is fairly minimal. She wants to hook up with the ugly-sexy Bay, but he’s not into it for reasons that we never quite grasp. (What else, or who else, is he doing with his time?) She grows to enjoy the farm life, and rarely if ever misses her phone or her friends or her underwear. Typical evening entertainment consists of singing hymns and listening to allegorical stories told by the family head, a dude named Dice, and that’s basically enough for Harmony.
Because Dektar never really gets a handle on Harmony’s connection to the family, it’s hard for us to understand her choices when the stakes start to rise. An obvious point of comparison is Emma Cline’s acclaimed The Girls (2016), a novel inspired by the Manson cult, and The Ash Family suffers by comparison because Cline keeps a careful focus on her protagonist’s processing.
By contrast, The Ash Family feels gauzy and distant even at its most shocking moments. Dektar makes Dice’s cult seem transparently appalling, and yet we have to accept that Harmony becomes tied to the group through mechanisms that are never fully elucidated. It’s one thing to have a character who doesn’t fully understand herself, it’s another to have one who hardly even bothers to try.