The Carhullan Army - Book of the Month
by Sarah Hall
It’s the near future in the town of Rith in Cumbria, oil is running out, the Thames barrier has been breached and the dictatorial Authority has taken control of the country. The UK is reliant on food (tinned and rationed) from the US.
Following a horrible episode in which a coil is fitted forcibly by the “contraception police”, the narrator of the story, known only as “Sister”, has had enough of the oppressive regime. She leaves her husband in Rith to seek out the self-sufficient community of women she remembers from her younger days that live in the far north of the county, headed by the indomitable Jackie Nixon.
What Sister finds at the community is not at all what she expected. Although the women are the farmers she remembers from market day in Rith - strong, expert growers of produce and livestock, makers of soaps, cheeses and wine - there is also a military air about the place. An elite SAS-style fighting force, with Jackie as its commander in chief, is set apart from the more domesticated sections of the community. Sister asks to become part of this fighting group but is rejected. When Jackie is convinced that their community is under threat, the women prepare to face the enemy and Sister (now physically and psychologically ready) is recruited into the Carhullan Army. What follows is a brilliant build-up to the inevitable conflict with the Authority.
The changes to Sister’s appearance bring to mind images of other extremists: Ellen Ripley in Alien; Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Mr Kurtz from Conrad's Heart of Darkness:
“My head was bald, newly shaved again, and a shadow of follicles ran the reverse globe of it. My skin had darkened almost to beech. I was leaner, had lost weight and gained muscle…….Along my collarbone was a tattooed blue line…….It was the anatomy of a fanatic.”
Like Crace’s THE PESTHOUSE, our book of the month for March, THE CARHULLAN ARMY is a good example of the dystopian genre for our times. Sarah Hall focuses the novel on issues such as climate change, fuel shortage and the role of women. The inhospitable Cumbrian landscape, which Sarah Hall evokes brilliantly, is a perfect setting - suitably tough and untamed just like the band of female separatists that inhabit it.
As Jim Crace pointed out in his interview with us last month (with reference to the dystopian novel) “Nowadays we are more concerned with an environmentally degraded planet or dread of new contagions. These are issues too important for fiction to ignore.”
Read our interview with Sarah Hall.