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?

38 thoughts on “Sarah Hall: The Carhullan Army (2007)

  1. This sounds like a book that I would really love. Some of the more recent dystopian novels sound very silly. This one indeed sounds literary.

    I highly recommend The Handmaid’s Tale. I actually do not think that it is dated at all. That is also very depressing but brilliant.

    • Thanks, for the recommendation, Brian. I’m planning on reading it.
      I haven’t read all that many more recent novels, with the exception of the Hunger Games and a few others. Sarah Hall is very different. I could imagine you’d like it.
      It was quite chilling. It would have been a worthy candidate for the Literature and War Readalong.

  2. I don’t usually like dystopian novels (I make an exception for Max Barry!). Some of my problems with it is that I have concerns about what the future may be like, and I’m not sure I want to know. Do you feel like that?

    • I share your concerns. But I always feel it will be nature that strikes back. Well, there is speculative fiction and speculative fiction. Some like The Age of Miracles are interesting thought experiments, a coming-of age story of the more unusual kind but this one was something different.
      I found it oppressing at times because it felt so realistic and I was thinking that if I ever find myself in a society like that I wouldn’t want to go on living. I would want to live like cattle nor would I want to be part of a guerilla army.
      I thought you might know others of her books.

  3. I’m not going to rush for this, I don’t know why. After all, I enjoyed a few dystopian novels. I like them for their message. What’s the message of this one? It’s clear in Fahrenheit 451 or 1984 or even in Jennifer Government by Max Barry (billet to come)

    • The message is not as clear, you can decide for yourself, I’d say it shows that acting violently against violence isn’t going to make the world a better place and that there’s a thin line between being a charismatic leader and a fanatic.

  4. Wonderful review, Caroline! Glad to know that you liked the book, though you found it sometimes depressing. I liked the book very much when I read it. Recently, one of my friends borrowed it from me, and before lending it to her, I read some of my favourite passages. Now after reading your review, I want to read the book again. Jackie was definitely a complex personality. I too had mixed feelings about her. It was also interesting that you found the book quite realistic. It will be quite scary if we end up becoming like the dystopian world depicted in the book. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    • Thanks, Vishy, and thanks for introducing me to her. I think she writes really well. I’ve got her collection of short stories here – or one of them, I’m not sure how many she’s published – and am curious to find out what other topics she will choose. Jackie was extremely interesting. I actually liked that the message wasn’t that clear or how did you see it?

      • You are welcome, Caroline. Hope you enjoy reading her short story collection. I will look forward to hearing your thoughts on it. I agree with you that the message wasn’t clear and that made the book interesting. I liked what you said in your reply to Emma’s comment. I remember feeling sad and depressed after finishing the book.

        • I might read a short story soon.
          I wonder how you will think about it should you read it again.
          I didn’t feel let down by the “lack of message”. In a way that was amessage in itself.

  5. Goodness I’m not sure if I want to read this one. Sounds like the writing is lovely, but not a very uplifting story. maybe this winter I’ll be in a darker mood.

    • It’s a dark book but the writing is great and maybe the review inspires someone to pick up her other books and tell me which one to ry next. 🙂
      I think the short stories must be very good.

  6. This has been on my radar ever since it was shortlisted for the Clarke Award (one of the very few awards I pay any attention to, in this case it’s an SF award that tends to go to particularly intelligent SF).

    It’s nice to read this, as it reinforces my impression of the book and encourages me to read it. I may move it up the pile. I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting a message, not a simple one anyway.

    • Thanks, for mentioning that award. I didn’t know it.
      I would really love to read your thoughts on this. It’s the type of book on wants to discuss.
      Sometimes when an author gives a mixed message I feel it’s an easy way out but not in her case. It’s really up to the reader and that feels very realistic to me. The title indicates that we are not going to read about a utopian society but there is still a lot that is positive about Carhullan, well I hope you will read it.
      It’s a daring book, I didn’t even touch on half of the topics.

  7. I’ve heard such mixed reviews of Sarah Hall’s writing that I’ve always ended up putting her books down in shops and libraries. The novel you’ve just reviewed is the one that gets the most consistently good reports. The Electric Michelangelo the most haters. I get the impression she’s a dark and demanding writer, and it’s probably best (for me) to be in the mood for that, or at least intending to discuss the book with a group of some kind.

    • That’s interesting. I thougth she was more generally liked but maybe thta’s really just for this book and the shorter fiction.
      You can certainly say she’s dark, but in a thought-provoking way. She just takes the dystopian novel one step further. There is no room for fuzzy feelings at the end of this book.
      I would be interested to hear your thougths though.

  8. I’ve read this, Dead Man and Haweswater and thought this was an average read, Dean Man was very good and Haweswater was a masterpiece. Carhullan was just a bit bleak and didn’t add anything new to the genre. I used to live in the Lake District so enjoyed that aspect, but it wasn’t thought provoking enough for me.

    • Interesting. Maybe you’ve read more dystopian novels than I did. I thougth it was quite thought-provoking. I’m gld to hear her other books are even better. I’m determined to read more of her.

  9. I’ve not yet read her, but I have this book (different title in the US–Daughters of the North) and have long wanted to read it–I think I need to be in the right mood. I like dystopian fiction–it’s been quite a while since I read any. So, which part of society would you have wanted to live in? Britain under the Authority or Carhullan? Did it feel plausible? I’m quite curious about this one!

    • It did stretch believability sometimes. The “world building” as it’s caled in speculative fiction had some holes but that was clearly not her point.
      I’m not an outdoor person, I don’t do well in the open and the cold, so would have wimped out and stayed under the Authority, maybe trying to oppose it from within.
      Plus the vast majority of my friends is male. It would be so strange to be among women only all of a sudden.

  10. I thought of Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale right away and knew I couldn’t read this one. The former was so depressing, I swore off reading any more dystopian fiction.
    Great review, though, Caroline.

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  12. I haven’t read any of Sarah Hall’s writing, but this sounds like an interesting dystopian story, and the kind of book that would make you think.

  13. To you, it has Lord Of The Flies vibe, to me it had 1984 vibe. The moment I read about things that are allowed not allowed, my mind straight away drift to 1984.
    There are so many unhappy dystopia stories out there.

    • In a way you could say it has a bit of both. The part set in Carhullan is more Lord of the Flies and those dealing with the Authority are a bit like 1984.
      Dystopian novels are widespread, that’s true, I guess it morrors a lot of our anxieties.

        • For a lot of people, possibly most people, the present is already worse than most dystopian stories.

          Of course many of these are particular situations. it’s not a dystopic novel, but Gibson’s Neuromancer is often seen as portraying this decaying and decadent future world. If you pay attention though it’s doing nothing of the sort – the main characters are having a terrible time in a highly dangerous environment but they’re hardened criminals on the outskirts of society. The book actually says very little about how the mainstream world is, and what it does say implies it’s very similar to ours.

          Parts of Somalia today makes the average dystopic novel look positively cheery. There isn’t a future, there are futures, myriads of them. Just like there isn’t a present, there are myriads of them right now. How the world seems from rural Mongolia must be quite different to how it seems from a Jakartan penthouse or a slum estate just outside Paris. The third of those is likely a real world dystopia, certainly I doubt any Mongolian farmers or members of the Jakartan elite would fancy it much.

          Lord of the Flies I’d strongly argue isn’t remotely a dystopic novel. It’s a novel about how society can break down and how thin the veneer of civilisation can be, but there’s absolutely no suggestion in it of a wider dystopic situation.

          • I guess you’re right about Somalia and some other African countries. Everytime I saw the news, I felt grateful I life in my country even with all the problems it’s still better here.
            Hahaha Jakartan elite already look other worldly to common people like me, let alone to Somalian.

            I want to read Lord of the flies not because of dystopia but because many said it’s awesome and it’s one of King’s favs.

          • I agree, Max, I only thougth of Lord of the Flies in the Carhullan part, which is the answer to the dystopic situation. I found it uncanny that Sarah hall chose to show that tpye of alternative way of life or at least it felt a bit like that. lord of the Flies is more savage. They just both look at what remains after the veneer is off.

  14. I read How to Paint a Dead Man and absolutely loved it. Such beautiful writing, tragic and stunning. I already have this on my wish list – as Daughters of the North – and your review makes me want to read it even more. It sounds like a great alternative to A Handmaid’s Tale (which you must read!).

    • I think you will like this, it’s really intense. I want to read something else by her soon. I’ll keep How to Paint a Dead Man in mind.
      I saw that it has another title in the US, seesm you’ve got that one. The US title gives less away. She does write beautifully.

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