Sarah Hall: The Carhullan Army (2007)


Set in the part of England once known as The Lake District and frequented by hordes of landscape hungry tourists, The Carhullan Army is narrated by a young woman who has adopted the name Sister. Britain after its union with the United States and numerous unsuccessful foreign wars, has found itself in the grip of a severe fuel crisis and the country is now under the control of a severe body known as The Authority. All fire-arms have been handed over to the Government and all women have been fitted with contraceptive devices; this Britain of the near-future is brutal and very-near desperate.Sister’s only hope — or so she thinks — lies in finding the Carhullan Army: a mythical band of women who lives a communal existence in the remote hills of Cumbria.

I came across Sarah Hall’s name many times in the past months. First I read a review of The Carhullan Army on Vishy’s blog (here) and immediately thought I’d love to read it. I later saw that Hall won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for The Carhullan Army, the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Hameswater and was shortlisted for the Man Booker for The Electric Michelangelo. Her short stories are said to be very good too.

The Carhullan Army is a dystopian novel. It has been called A Handmaid’s Tale for our times. I can’t confirm whether that’s the case as I haven’t read Atwood’s novel yet, but it’s certainly not a genre novel, it’s highly literary.

The Carhullan Army  is set in a bleak Britain, which is ruled by the so-called Authority. The system has collapsed due to a fuel crisis. People live like cattle, sharing small apartments. Some things are strictly regulated like work and reproduction, others are forbidden, like leaving the town. People are depressed, many use drugs. Relationships collapse, love dies. “Sister”, how the narrator calls herself, can’t take this anymore. She’s heard of Carhullan. Somewhere in the mountainous region of the Lake District lives a group of women autonomously. They have a leader, Jackie, a very charismatic figure, but other than that, they are free. Sister doesn’t know that much about the place, only that what she has heard. The rest is a mix of her imagination, her hopes, her dreams.

The place sounded utopian, martial or monastic, depending on which publication was interviewing, and what angle they wanted to push.

Sister is sure that her life will improve and that the women will welcome her, commend her for her courage to leave. But things don’t exactly go like that. The way Sister is “welcomed” is a huge disappointment, a shock even. It will take more than simple resilience to come to terms with this. But once she’s proven she isn’t a spy, nobody is following her and that she’s truly interested in living at Carhullan, she’s accepted.

Sister is a complex narrator but Jackie, the leader, is even far more complex. What Jackie has created at Carhullan is as amazing as it is scary. The women are able to provide for themselves. They plant, gather, and hunt, and – even far more important – they have an army. An army which has been trained by ex-soldier Jackie who is a severe drill instructor. She’s fierce and demanding, charismatic and unforgiving. Most women know that they might need to defend themselves some day and for many it is a special distinction and a great honor to be chosen for the army, others however think Jackie goes too far. Sister would love to be part of the army, but she has to wait a long time.

In Jackie Sarah Hall has created a multilayered personality. She combines the traits of a cult leader, of a fanatic, a saviour, a soldier and a hero. She never questions the use of violence, which, for me, was the most difficult part of the book. I never thought this was a utopian society, but I never thought they were that misguided either. Given the circumstances the development was quite logical but they were not free. Every single of Jackie’s decisions is an answer to the Authority and the end of the book makes this very clear. Sister idealizes Carhullan when she goes looking for it, the reader thinks it’s ideal at first, but towards the end we understand that Carhullan is part of the system as well. There would be no Carhullan, at least not the one we see here, if the society had not reached an endpoint.

Here’s Jackie talking to Sister:

“…. I just want to get to the bottom why these things go on. I’m a dark fucking tourist, Sister, I like going to these places. It’s interesting to me. I’m interested in what holds people back. And what doesn’t. And how far these things extend….”

I think this illustrates my point. Jackie is raw, she’s violent and she’s never free of questioning the system, she has an urge to explore it and in doing so stays tied to it.

The Carhullan Army explores many other themes, Lesbian love, autonomous living, the nature of cults and fanatics, totalitarianism and terrorism. Sarah Hall writes well, her sentences are limpid, simple, yet her vocabulary is rich and evocative.

The story is told like a confession, which has been recorded. Some of the files are recovered, some are corrupted. I thought tha approach worked well.

It’s a book that made me feel very uncomfortable. I found it had a bit of a Lord of the Flies vibe. The place Sarah Hall describes isn’t a gentle haven, it’s a rough world, in which people have to fight for their survival. The harsh landscape, the difficult situation has changed them. They swear, they fight. They do have camaraderie and loyalty, even love,  but it’s all very raw.

I am glad I’ve read The Carhullan Army. I think it’s excellent and thought-provoking but it’s depressing as well. I wouldn’t want to live in neither of the worlds Sarah Hall has created.

Have you read any of Sarah Hall’s novels or short stories?