One 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.