Review: The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall

Colin Greenland loses the plot among all the analysis in Sarah Hall's futuristic fable, The Carhullan Army

The Carhullan Army
by Sarah Hall
207pp, Faber, £14.99

The oil runs out. Civilisation slumps. The Thames bursts its barrier and floods the Palace of Westminster. In the ensuing civil reorganisation control is ceded to the Authority, a nondescript dictatorship in thrall to the US. Reduced to tinned food and rationed electricity, Britain dispatches ever more troops to the wars in China and South America. Rehoused cheek by jowl in the "terrace quarters" of decrepit and depleted towns, millions submit to an exhausted existence of cordons, curfews and censorship. Contraception is compulsory; reproduction regulated by lottery. In Penrith, now called simply Rith, a narrator who refuses to tell us her name toils at a factory building wind turbines for the 10-year recovery plan: turbines that stand in silent ranks in the warehouse, never to be deployed. The narrator calls herself Sister. She has a plan of her own and a gun: her great-granddad's army rifle, long buried in an overgrown garden. When no one's looking Sister means to dig it up and run away to find Carhullan and the "unofficial" women.

Sarah Hall's third novel is an unexpected addition to that low-key subgenre of science fiction that includes Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Stern, murmurous protests against the folly and injustice of modern life, they typically enclose us and their sacrificial heroines in a tunnel of pessimism to focus our eyes on an eco-feminist light glowing faintly at the end. Like Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos: Archives, The Carhullan Army is much concerned with law and violence: the point at which the hand that rocks the cradle must pick up a gun. Believing that point should come sooner rather than later, Jackie Nixon, Cambridge graduate and ex-commando, has set up her female separatist commune at a derelict farm on the Cumbrian moors. Jackie's women feed, clothe and hug each other, sing songs and paint their faces. They also shave their heads, stockpile arms and equipment, train for hand-to-hand combat in the gorse and take eight-mile runs in the rain. Like The Handmaid's Tale, The Carhullan Army is presented as an evidential document, the "statement of a female prisoner detained".

As with her first novel Haweswater, The Carhullan Army is set deep in Sarah Hall's native territory. Over the fetid gloom of Rith brood the dark moors and fells, thrusting through the soft verdure of the lowlands like primeval, inescapable truths. Hall's prose is chunky with local language, colour and landscape: bothies, bields, becks and corbies, hefted flocks and droves of heather. Everything is earthy, nothing idealised. Hall makes her survivalist women properly foulmouthed and uncouth. Jackie Nixon herself is a splendid creation, ablaze with the schizoid, lacerating intelligence of a guerrilla messiah, or warrior queen.

Muscular as her writing is, Hall still seems to prefer commentary to drama. Her analyses go on and on, muffling plot and character. When volunteering anew for an army that has rejected her once already, Sister reflected: "Deep down I had thought myself unusual, perhaps maligned with some kind of unnatural antagonism or need for leadership, for wanting to act in a way I had been programmed to think was wrong." I still can't parse that sentence with any confidence. The plot ends prematurely too, with a skip and a gory blurt, as if overcome with despair at the inevitability of the outcome. What she has given us is good, though: tough, thorny, bloodyminded.

Colin Greenland

The GuardianTramp

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