A woman, who now goes by the name Sister, once lived in the town of Rith in northern England, but she escaped with a rucksack full of supplies and a working gun. Her goal was to find the Carhullan, a community of women who lived outside the government’s purview. Environmental catastrophe had led the government to impose strict regulations on everyone, especially women. People were moved into cities, where they were assigned often-pointless jobs, and women were forced to get IUDs so they won’t get pregnant. Sister’s husband doesn’t seem to mind so much, but Sister has had enough. And so she leaves.
At Carhullan, Sister finds a different kind of life, although it is no less regimented than that in Risk. In some respects, it is more regimented. Still, it is a chosen life, and that makes a lot of difference. As time passes, however the community comes to reconsider its relationship with the outside world and the Authority that governs it. How long will they be left to themselves? How can they defend their world? When is the right time to act? And how?
In this 2007 novel, Sarah Hall explores questions that I imagine are on a lot of people’s minds today. At what point are the most radical options—the ones totally outside our comfort zones—the best choice, the most moral choice? And how can a community make those choices together? What if those choices affect others outside the community? And how do we balance our own freedom with the needs of the wider world?
These questions aren’t considered in long, philosophical discussions, although the women of Carhullan discuss and debate every action. The fact that this is a community of women changes some of the power dynamics, but it doesn’t remove them. It’s more that, without men, all of these women are able to exercise their full power, for good or for ill. The group’s leader, Jackie, is as unsettlingly inspiring as any male leader I’ve encountered in a story of this type. I admired her and was repelled by her all at once.
And what these women go through in the name of resistance is unsettling. They live a harsh life, in almost every respect. Yes, they have camaraderie, and they have choice (up to a point), but nothing is easy. And when they begin planning for their next steps, life gets even harder. Freedom comes with a cost, and not just a physical one, but perhaps also a moral one.
I found this book extremely disturbing, but in a good way. I liked that it doesn’t flinch at the difficulties, and I appreciated that there is nuance in the presentation. At the end of the book, we’re left to wonder whether Jackie’s plan was the right one. I don’t know what I think, and I’m sure to be pondering the question for some time.