The Carhullan Army

carhullan armyOne of the things that I sometimes find regrettable about literary fiction is that it can be a little samey. I don’t know whether this is the result of writers’ workshops that go in cycles and turn out similar sorts of work, or whether it’s the book industry that rewards authors that have a similar vision (not to mention voice, form, genre, and ability to write books that are 350 pages long), but literary fiction can be somewhat predictable. So when I tell you that Sarah Hall’s 2007 novel The Carhullan Army is a near-future dystopia, you probably think, as I did, that you know what this is. So many dystopias! So many brave divergent handmaid’s clockwork hunger farms on the Fahrenheit road!

The Carhullan Army, however, is the real thing: a hard book, unforgiving, surprising, and sometimes disturbing. It takes place in a bleak post-capitalist Britain in which the population has been rounded up into closely-policed urban centers, made dependent on foreign aid for subsistence, and given meaningless factory jobs. Women are fitted with mandatory contraceptive devices called regulators. Unlike most recent dystopias I’ve read, however, this book is not so much about individual destiny or quest, or about the importance of dreams and desires. This book is about resistance; about insurgency and — as it turns out — violent revolution, and what it takes for a tiny community to push back against the state.

The narrator of the book is a woman who escapes Penrith (now just called Rith), a menial factory job, and an unhappy relationship, and goes to find Carhullan, an extremist all-women’s commune in the Lake District bent on overthrowing the government.

My name is Sister.

This is the name that was given to me three years ago. It is what the others called me. It is what I call myself. Before that, my name was unimportant. I can’t remember it being used. I will not answer to it now, or hear myself say it out loud. I will not sign to acknowledge it. It is gone. You will call me Sister.

I was the last woman to go looking for Carhullan.

Sister first hears of Carhullan at the age of seventeen, when its community of women start to trade their farm produce in her town. (This is before the catastrophic collapse of Britain’s economy.) From the beginning, she is attracted to them:

They were a strange group, slightly exotic, slightly disliked […] Their dress was different, unconventional; often they wore matching yellow tunics that tied at the back and came to the knee […] They were always friendly towards other women, joking with them over the wicker trays of radishes and cucumbers, giving out discounts and free butter. With the men they acted cooler; they were offhand.

After these encounters, Sister begins collecting information about Carhullan, and especially about its charismatic leader, Jackie Nixon, a mysterious ex-army officer. A decade and a half later, Sister finds herself running away from her post-collapse life in Rith, and perhaps particularly the brutal violation of her reproductive rights, and running to the life she imagines at Carhullan.

Hall never for a moment allows the commune at Carhullan to be idealized. The women eat only what they can hunt and cultivate, a task made much more difficult because of the terrain and the altitude. The winters are frigid, and they must dig their own peat for fuel. The women have meetings to discuss communal issues; they sing songs; they have a foul-mouthed rough friendliness and camaraderie, but these scenes aren’t whimsical. They are ruthless. This book is about survival. The women’s bodies are tattooed and scarified; they are whittled to lean muscle. When Sister arrives, she sees them as strange knotted Celtic creatures. It doesn’t take long before she is one, herself.

The central drama of the book revolves around the insurrection planned by Jackie Nixon and her Carhullan army. Jackie chooses a special elite band of soldiers, including Sister, and trains them even more brutally than any Special Forces might be trained today. Just as, at Carhullan, all roles (hunting, gathering, talking, listening, defense, attack) are filled by women, Jackie taps into brutality and violence as a human trait rather than a masculine or feminine one. Sister responds eagerly:

She did not make monsters of us. She simply gave us the power to remake ourselves into those inviolable creatures the God of Equality had intended us to be. We knew she was deconstructing the old disabled versions of our sex, and that her ruthlessness was adopted because those constructs were built to endure. She broke down the walls that had kept us contained. There was a fresh red field on the other side and in its rich soil were growing all the flowers of war that history had never let us gather.

Hall lets us look at the question: at what point do the oppressed take up the tools of the oppressor? If we have had our rights taken away, are we assured of our right to repress others, and kill them in our turn? On the other hand, in the process of toppling a repressive and dangerous regime, is it right to give up certain rights? Is Jackie’s ruthlessness necessary toward a greater goal? Sister’s straightforward description of all aspects of the community and the sympathetic portrayal of Carhullan raise complex questions about totalitarianism that the more usual treatment of the issue can’t. And Hall doesn’t give us comforting answers.

This is a short book, only 200 pages, but it is vivid and very strongly written. (I haven’t mentioned the excellent, simple prose, which is like a breath of air from the mountains. Hall uses, judiciously, some Celtic dialect, which makes Carhullan seem slightly ancient and exotic even though it is in the future.) It is really a political novel, but seen right up close, through Sister’s eyes, which is, of course, the most feminist way politics can be seen. If this sounds like something you might like, I highly recommend it.

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18 Responses to The Carhullan Army

  1. joyce says:

    Was this book originally titled “Daughters of the North”?

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, great question. I should have mentioned in the post that The Carhullan Army is the original, British title, but that it was also published in the US under the title Daughters of the North. I prefer the British title, myself! Have you read it?

      • joyce says:

        Yes, Absolutely wonderful! Read it a few years ago and it still haunts me. Tight, unsentimental writing telling us as women so much about ourselves and the world we inhabit now. And the importance of surviving to continue the fight for a better world.

  2. Jeanne says:

    Sounds like I should read this one. I’m still a little traumatized from watching a few episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale with my daughter, though, so I might have to give it a few months.

    • Jenny says:

      Boy, do I get that. Did you watch Man in the High Castle? Teresa has been after me to watch that, and I really trust her taste, but I’ve been wary for the very trauma-related reasons you mention.

  3. Swistle says:

    Favorite part: “So many brave divergent handmaid’s clockwork hunger farms on the Fahrenheit road!”

  4. Elle says:

    Loved this, and delighted that you enjoyed it too. It’s such an intelligent and genuinely brave book.

    Also, “So many brave divergent handmaid’s clockwork hunger farms on the Fahrenheit road” made me do a little snort of my tea.

    • Jenny says:

      I live to make you snort your tea.

      I agree that it’s a very intelligent book. The more I think about it, the more I get out of it. I think it’s extremely well conceived and executed.

      • Elle says:

        Jackie Nixon’s an amazing character, no? I wonder a lot about who could play her in a movie. Someone who could pull off short-and-muscled-and-crop-haired.

      • joyce says:

        I have been trying for years to resist the urge to translate books into movie stars/actors/corporate visual images as a means of keeping my head straight and concentrating on ideas an author is putting out — or maybe digging in! The revolution will not be televised — or movieized — you know what I mean…

      • Jenny says:

        Apparently “Nixon” is a local name from that area, historically from a band of reivers who went out with bulldogs to fight oppressive government forces. It doesn’t have those connotations for Americans. She’s such a complex character — she has to be enigmatic to pull off what she’s doing.

  5. Teresa says:

    I’ve read three of her books but not this one, even though it’s the first one I heard of. All three that I’ve read are very different from each other, and from this one, but all feature excellent writing. The Wolf Border may be my favorite, but I also loved the stories in This Beautiful Indifference.

    • Jenny says:

      The Wolf Border sounds so good! I think it will be my next one by her, and maybe I’ll get to it faster now that I’ve read this one. (I read about this one 9 years ago!) You might like this one, given the anger that fuels it and the current climate. And it is just so smart.

  6. Christy says:

    Have to chime in with the others with appreciating your line: “So many brave divergent handmaid’s clockwork hunger farms on the Fahrenheit road!”

  7. writerrea says:

    Just finished this after reading your review, and I’m glad to have discovered it. I think this is miles better than books like Station Eleven, which was a book that pretty much turned me off to dystopian/post-apocalyptic books. Hall’s attention to the details of life under these conditions really resonated with me. (Sorry to use the word resonated–not enough coffee yet to think of something less cliche.)

    • Jenny says:

      I didn’t like Station Eleven either, for a couple of reasons. This is a book of a whole different approach, I think, and certainly a completely different style of writing — stripped bare. (And resonated is a fine word for this sort of book, I think!)

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