Review: 'The Cherry Robbers' by Sarai Walker

A crumbling mansion full of flowers, a mother haunted by ghosts, and six sisters, locked away from the world until their wedding days. What could go wrong? Turns out, a lot. The Cherry Robbers is a delightfully sumptuous novel, full of sweltering heat and dark fears. Thanks to Mariner Books and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. My sincerest apologies for the long delay.

Pub. Date: 5/17/2022
Publisher: Mariner Books



Iris Chapel and her five elegant sisters, all of them heiresses to the Chapel firearms fortune, live cloistered in a lavish Victorian mansion. Neglected by both a distant, workaholic father and a mentally troubled mother—who believes their home is haunted by the victims of Chapel weapons—the sisters have grown up with only each other for company. They long to escape the eerie fairy tale of their childhood and move forward into the modern world, but for young women in 1950s Connecticut, the only way out is through marriage.

Yet it soon becomes clear that for the Chapel sisters, marriage equals death.

When the eldest sister walks down the aisle, tragedy strikes. The bride dies mysteriously the very next day, leaving her family and the town in shock. But this is just the beginning of a chain of disasters that will make each woman wonder whether true love will kill her, too. Only Iris, the second-youngest, finds a way to escape—but can she outrun the family curse forever?.

I sometimes thank God that I was born when I was. I remember my grandmother's outrage, still, when she told me how she had to get my granddad's written permission before the bank opened an account for her. I witnessed my own mother's struggle, combining her desire for a career while feeling the pressure to be a homemaker. While things are far from perfect in the 21st century, at least I do get to try and find a path for myself. The claustrophobia which is explored in The Cherry Robbers, the way in which the Chapel sisters' only chance to escape home and their parents is by creating another under the gentle tyranny of a husband, somehow still sends shivers down my spine, without even taking the ghosts and curses into account. The Cherry Robbers is about how generation after generation of women passed their own hopes and dreams onto their daughters, along with their own pains and traumas. As such, it is not necessarily an easy read, especially as it also contains depictions of mental health asylums, death, and self harm. I would say that, in my opinion, Sarai Walker handles all of this well, though. It never feels like she is exploiting pain to tell a Gothic, dramatic tale. Rather, she employs the drama and heightened atmosphere of the Gothic to tell a story about pain. 

I considered how to provide a non-spoilery summary here. Suffice it to say that an artist is encouraged to reopen her past, after a stubborn journalist will not leave her alone. In a set of note books, she writes down her memories of her life, her sisters, and their deaths. Iris grows up in a mansion she (not so) affectionally calls "the wedding cake". Her mother wakes screaming at night, haunted by the victims of her husband's guns, and her and her sisters cannot wait to leave. When Aster, the oldest sister, dies dramatically after her wedding, the truth cannot be avoided: getting married spells death for the Chapel sisters. Told in retrospect and yet with a painful immediacy, Iris' journey is all about finding a way at once safe and yet fulfilling. With Iris as our narrator for much of the novel, we get to know her most intimately, although her keen eye for detail also tells us much of her sisters. However, Walker also makes clear how much of this is Iris' "story", the one she wants to tell us, and the way she plays with ideas of an unreliable narrator, or perhaps a narrator who is still hiding some things, is delightful. The way she skips from the past to the present also maintains a nice arc of tension throughout. 

I heard of Sarai Walker's first novel, Dietland, although I haven't read it yet. While that sounded wickedly modern in its feminism, with The Cherry Robbers she uses the sumptuousness of the Gothic genre to make her point. Anyone who looks closely at the title and remembers some slang will guess what the doom of the Chapel sisters is. Walker builds up to this, to the idea of male power over both the lives and bodies of women, but it becomes unavoidably pertinent in the final third of the novel. I loved the way that the novel was structured, how it took us back in time, how it played with time in general, and how strong Iris' voice was throughout the novel. In reflecting on the past, she has insights now she didn't have then, and that adds a nice layer of suspense and foreboding. The Gothic atmosphere, the way in which it employs pathetic fallacy, like the ever-present heat, or the symbolism of architecture, is delightfully employed in The Cherry Robbers. I loved how dramatic it was, but I never felt like it was overly dramatic, if that makes sense. The premise of a curse and ghosts in an otherwise normal world and how no one else seems to believe in it, ends up becoming a symbol for how women's stories and experiences in the world are dismissed. Overall, I loved what Walker did in this novel and can't wait to read Dietland and any future books she writes. 

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

The Cherry Robbers has the best of the Gothic with the benefit of modern feminist awareness. Walker creates a luscious world you want to sink away in, were it not for the ghosts and curses and men hiding around every corner.


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