The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall

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The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Rich, heady prose reflects prisms of ideas, moods, themes and visions in this slender dystopian novel, but its main focus is gender. Brooding and atmospheric, some may find it oppressive, but Bookbag loved it.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: August 2007
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571236596

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After the floods and the wave of terrorist attacks came The Authority. Britain is a broken nation, dependent on a fundamentalist America for food and energy. Agriculture has collapsed. People eat from tins donated by religious aid agencies and live, Soviet-style, crammed together in elevated urban areas unaffected by the floods. Industry stutters on and people work long shifts on assembly lines, producing industrial goods they know will never be used. Procreation is severely regulated. Women are compulsorily fitted with contraceptive coils, permitted to remove them only if their name is drawn in the Baby Lottery, a grotesque parody of the draft lotteries in America during the Vietnam War.

Sister lives in Rith, in the Northern Territories. Suffocated and stifled by the authoritarian regime, alienated from her husband and violated by her coil, Sister resolves to escape this wasted life. She sets out for Carhullan, a women's commune set up before things got so bad, and surviving still, up in the remote Cumbrian hills. Just getting there is dangerous enough, but what happens after she arrives is more dangerous still. For her sisters, Sister narrates the story of her time with the Carhullan Army from her prison cell in Lancaster.

Beautifully and evocatively written in prose that's by turns gentle and harsh, personal and impersonal, The Carhullan Army is a book about women much more than it is a book about future catastrophe. Sex and gender is its focus - future catastrophe's effect upon it is really just a political and philosophical vehicle for an examination of womanhood. Who and what are we as women? Sex seems important to self-realisation. What Sister takes from sex and her attitude towards it change and develop as she herself changes and develops. Youthful enjoyment in the first flush of love gives way to dislocation and lack of libido in the controlled, post apocalyptic world of The Authority. Lesbian sex seems fulfilling and holistic and joyful in the back to nature commune of Carhullan. And when Sister goes back to lovemaking with men as she trains for war, sex becomes little more than an angry and brutal need. Here are three faces of woman as basic as you get.

I am not sure what Hall intends me to take from The Carhullan Army. Should I be mourning the fact that whatever we do as women, we are doomed to fail? Surely not. Should I be celebrating the fact that whatever happens to us on the outside, we can always choose our womanhood the inside? Perhaps. Should I be taking to the streets? Looking for sisterhood? I don't know. What I do is that I'm thinking not only about all these things but also about thick, harsh and heady prose that perfectly expresses the landscape of the narrative - physical, emotional and political - and about a writer unafraid to write a big story in few words. And all these thoughts are good thoughts.

My thanks to the nice people at Faber for sending the book.

Those who appreciate authors who don't need five hundred pages to tell a simple story might also enjoy Jim Crace's angle on future catastrophe in The Pesthouse or The Eyrie by Stevie Davies, a book about the past and present in the lives of three women.

Booklists.jpg The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall is in the Top Ten Books For Your Auntie.

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