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Camille Gardener has travelled to the city from her home in the suburbs to attend a reception honouring a young man, Harris Blanchard, who is the recipient of an award for humanitarian services. Five years earlier, Harris had been acquitted of all responsibility in the death of Camille's daughter Emily, whom he left to die in the woods following her rape. Camille is consumed with rage at the injustice of it all and at the award ceremony calls out, "Her death didn't change you." Then, half drunk and wholly out of control, she starts a charge toward Harris to do. . .something. She is not clear what, but the security guard is taking no chances. He wrestles her to the ground and off to the police station.
From there she is retrieved by Luke, a man whose life was saved when Emily's heart replaced his failing one. Other of her organs were distributed, but the bond with Luke is the strongest for Camille, who occasionally takes comfort from listening to Emily's heart pounding strongly in Luke's chest. Camille suffers no legal consequences for her behaviour at the reception and to her horror Harris's mother forgives her on Instagram.
But Camille's performance that night will have terrible consequences for her nonetheless. Soon she receives an invitation to join Niobe, an on-line chat group of women who, like Camille, have lost children due to the actions of persons who were not punished for their deeds. Readers of Greek myth or of Hamlet will remember Niobe, the grieving mother who continued to weep for the loss of her beautiful children even after she was turned into a rock to keep her quiet.
Niobe turns out to be not merely a safe space in which its members can vent their anger and share their losses; it serves as a kind of antechamber or vetting room for a far more sinister group that runs on the dark web and is headed by a woman known only as 0001. When Camille is encouraged to express how she really feels about Harris Blanchard, she announces, "I want him dead. For real. I don't care how." Prompted several times, she repeats her wish in ever stronger terms. Finally, she is asked what she would think if she were told that the group could actually accomplish her desire. Camille at first rejects the idea, suspecting some sort of exploitive scam. But in the end she is convinced when 0001 assures her that she is dealing with a collective of women, all of whom are grieving the deaths of their children. Each of them, she is told:
"is a working part in a great machine. The machine that we are produces justice. We've been doing this for more than three years, and we have been successful. But in order for us to achieve continued success, each part of this great machine must 1) commit fully to our cause and 2) tell no one about it."
Once accepted as a member of the collective, Camille is tasked with following a set of directions that end with her buying a hunting knife and sending it off in the mail. She is not informed of what the knife is intended for. At this point, Camille is uncertain about whether all of this is merely role play or actual assassination. And then she discovers that she has been a link in a chain of events which culminated in the death of someone she had met along the way. The collective is not role-play.
In a documentary I once saw about capital punishment in America, several family members of murder victims who were permitted to attend the executions of the perpetrators were interviewed afterwards. A surprising number admitted that they had not experienced the relief, the satisfaction, or the sense of closure they had been expecting. Their loved ones were still dead and the deaths of their killers did not mitigate their loss. The disappointment was by no means universal, but it was striking.
When Camille asks some of the sisters of THE COLLECTIVE how they felt when they learned that the men they blamed for the deaths of their children had died, they all report considerable satisfaction. They had spent so much time in the group repeatedly venting their rage by imagining hideous if commensurate tortures for those they held responsible for their losses that when the collective actually succeeded in disposing of the villains, they can only feel relief.
But when Camille learns that Harris has been dispatched thanks to the collective, she does not feel any joy. She tells us that despite the fact that Harris was a terrible human being, "he was also a kid like Emily was, with a mother and a father. And his death hasn't changed my life for the better. It hasn't made Emily any more alive."
It is a realization that softens the reader's response to Camille who to this point has seemed on a downward spiral of vengeance and rage. But unfortunately, it is one that causes some members of the collective to look at Camille less as a sister and more as a threat. She has, after all, sworn total loyalty to the group, most members of which have committed or abetted murder.
At this point, the tension mounts, strengthened by the new sympathy we have for Camille. The resolution is not a simple one and, like the rest of the book, raises interesting issues of justice and redemption.
What is particularly striking about THE COLLECTIVE is the degree to which Gaylin avoids appearing to take a clear stand on the moral and ethical problems she presents. Most of those being held responsible by the collective's sisters seem to have evaded prosecution due to their social class or influential connections. When they were tried, they benefited from their privileged positions. On the other hand, the collective does not hold its own trials but simply believes the assertions of the grieving women. Perhaps at least in some cases, they are wrong. Disturbing also is the use of language associated with feminism to characterize the collective and its members.
THE COLLECTIVE is both absorbing and challenging. And if any book clubs have survived the pandemic, they will have a splendid evening discussion this one.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, December 1990
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