Monday, September 1, 2008

The Carhullan Army

By Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber
Reviewed by Jodie

Every time I look at my slim, hardback copy of Sarah Hall’s ‘The Carhullan Army’ I get a little thrill. This thin book is possibly the most powerful contemporary feminist novel I’ve read since ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. It is tight, well written, inventive, loudly political and I want to ram it into your already overcrowded bookcase. Yet when I come to describe just why it is such a good book I stumble, it is difficult to describe exactly what this book is. It’s a dirty, dark dysotopian novel filled with spirit and hope. It’s a feminist tract that wildly contradicts much established feminism and yet manages to agree with it. It’s an elegy to nature and a condemnation of industrialism. Sarah Hall’s book is so many wonderful things at once that it is a challenge to keep any review of it within a recommended length.

‘The Carhullan Army’ is set in a Britain where the worst possible things have happened. Resources have failed, recession and wars paralyse the economy, the government has become self-governing and population control is in place. Women have a permanent contraceptive coil placed inside of them to ensure that the population is kept manageable. This measure, central to the book, ensures that men do not have to take any form of responsibility in controlling population and even seems to be a form of providing them with extra sexual excitement. Checks on these ‘uterine regulators’ also allow for some sanctioned abuse by authority figures. By removing a woman’s right to self govern her own body Sarah Hall voices the idea that as circumstances worsen rights specific to women will be removed, while men will continue to use the word ‘we’ to insist the whole human race is suffering the same injustices. The idea of denying women the right to have children is a neat inversion of the idea that women were once forbidden to abort foetuses. Whether women want to give birth to or abort children they still believe in the same essential right, the right for a woman to choose and regulate when she does and doesn’t give birth. Removing that right would mean that women lose fundamental control of their live.

Sarah Hall’s main character documents one of her conversations with her ex-partner Andrew which shows how the loss of women’s right might be covered up by logical argument:

‘‘ You just don’t get it do you?’ I would tell him ‘It’s never you.’

‘ Never me what?’ he’d ask. ‘Never men, you mean? Look you know it’s just a practical thing. There’s no conspiracy here.’’

I’m sure many female readers will have heard that thought expressed in some form.

The narrator, unnamed until later in the novel, is unwilling to remain passive so she sets out to find a different way of life outside the barriers of the compound she lives in. She walks from her home to find a community called Carhullan set up by women before restrictions were placed on movement. She is expecting paradise and Carhullan sounds like the kind of place readers may expect to be essentially good and pure as it is a society made up of women and founded on natural living. However as soon as she arrives the narrator is brutally ambushed and shoved into a device like a sweat box for several days until she is close to mental destruction. This abrupt action completely reverses any preconceived ideas readers might have about this community. Just because it is run by women doesn’t mean Carhullan is blindly open to all or is full of unquestioning happiness. Clearly Hall is not about to fulfill some unrealistic fantasy of how violence would end if women ruled the world.

This society was built to survive harsh outside forces meaning it must be tough and practical. This is where the army of the title comes in. Carhullan’s inhabitants are women made physically strong and mentally hard by their leader Jackie. All the women in the community work at demanding farm jobs and several train especially hard in Jackie’s patrol unit. One of the best things about Sarah Hall’s book is that it takes female strength almost as a given, something dormant that can be developed with a little will. It is never questioned whether ‘women’ are capable of doing everything required of them, that is accepted, it is more a question of whether each individual has the will to adjust to life on the farm and build up their strength. Hall creates female characters who reject much of what it is to be traditionally feminine but never alienates the reader from their experience as each character is filled with emotion and personality.

Much is wrong at Carhullan but much is also right and wonderful, the issues within the society do not stem from the prevalent gender of the group but from the ambitions and clashes of individuals. The leader of Carhullan, Jackie is a fantastic realisation of the loveable dictator. Through the eyes of Hall’s narrator, named Sister on entering the community, the reader is shown the possible reasons for Jackie’s brutality, talked through her logic and exposed to her deceptions and crimes. As Sister is never able to get deep into Jackie’s mind there is always enough uncertainty about her motivations and actions to keep readers in love with her anger even though she does some extremely vicious things. She is a revolutionary female character, hard as diamonds, rational and uncompromising as well as a bit psychotic.

Sarah Hall’s writing is tight without being spare or sparse. She doesn’t waste words but manages to create evocative descriptions of the natural world from sharply captured details:

‘On the howse there were delicate purple harebells growing in the grass between the limestone outcrops. It was too late in the season for them but at that moment they were the loveliest thing I had seen.’

Like many books that engage with the issue of women’s independence and identity Hall uses symbols like nature and colour to great effect. She slots references to creepers, the moon and the colour yellow into the novel in a way that avoids disturbing the narrative but strongly signal moods or ideas. It is interesting to see such a thoroughly modern novel use quiet symbolism effectively alongside fast plot and strong violence.

Sarah Hall’s third novel is a deadly book in a small package. Fans of dysotopian works, sci-fi books, adventure stories, feminism and old classics will all find something to enjoy in this compact novel.

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