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?

Charles Dickens: Great Expectations (1861)

In Great Expectations the orphan Pip tells the story of his life. He tells us how, after having lost his parents as a small child, he was brought up “by hand” by his mean and quarrelsome sister who hit him and her husband. How his sister’s husband Joe and Biddy the teacher were the only kind people in his life. How he met a convict and helped him. How he was invited to the excentric and melancholy Miss Havisham to play at her house. How he saw the wonderous house for the first time and met the beautiful Estella who would be the love of his life. How being introduced to Miss Havisham and Estella made him long for another life and feel ashamed of his own. How finally he was made rich and hoping for great expectations from an unknown benefactor. And how in the end things turned out in a very different way.

Great Expectations offered everything I expected from Dickens and so much more. The only thing I could criticize is that it was predictable and that there were a lot of coincidences which didn’t seem all that realistic but who cares. There is so much in this novel to like that I can easily forget its flaws. The characters were, as was to be expected, quirky and over-the top, much more caricatures than portraits, but drawn which such a wonderful imagination that I loved each one of them.

I also liked the atmosphere, how with a few words, a few sentences he captures a mood, a season, the weather, a location, a house, a street. All his descriptions are highly evocative and one sees every little detail.

There were many uncanny, witty and captivating scenes and I would have a hard time picking favorites. I liked all the chapters at Miss Havisham’s house. The sorrow and grief which had made the time stand still in that place and entrapped its owner for eternity, gave the book a very gothic feel.

But I also loved all the scenes including Mr Jagger’s clerk Wemmick and his father. They made me chuckle very often. They are such an endearing couple.

To do this book justice and write properly about it, I would need more time which I don’t have. Maybe I will return to it next year and write something a bit more detailed.

For now I would just like to say, I loved it for many reasons but what stood out the most is that Dickens comes across as a writer with a huge heart who can even  make many of his villains endearing.

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Returning to Virginia Woolf

Maybe it’s because I’m reading Alexandra Johnson’s books and Virginia Woolf is an author who is central in them or perhaps it is because of Sigrun’s (sub rosa) Virginia Woolf project which I like to follow, whatever it is, Virginia Woolf was often on my mind lately.

I have this odd habit that when I like an author a lot I try to keep at least one of his or her books for later. There are a few authors whose complete works I have read but, due to my reluctance to run out of books to look forward to, they aren’t numerous.

Virginia Woolf is one of those authors where the thought I may finally have read all she has ever written fills me with a certain apprehension. While I’m still keeping Moments of Being for later, I have finally started The Voyage Out, the only novel I hadn’t read yet.

It’s funny to return to her and finalize the reading of her novels with the first book she wrote. It feels as if I had completed a circle. I started reading Virginia Woolf with Mrs Dalloway. I didn’t know that Mrs Dalloway was a returning character. I didn’t even know that Virginia Woolf had any returning characters. But here she is, in The Voyage Out, Mrs Dalloway, in all of her “glory”. Was she always this obnoxious? Frankly, I don’t remember. What I remember of my first Virginia Woolf novel was how much I liked the style.

The Voyage Out is very different from later books but at the same time it contains so many aspects typical for Virginia Woolf”s writing. I know many people read the body of work of an author they cherish chronologically but in her case, reading backwards wasn’t a bad choice. One could too easily overread important aspects of this early novel or, as was done when it was published, dismiss it as being nothing special.

Reading The Voyage Out makes me realize once more what I like the most about her writing. Yes, the style, especially in the later novels, is fantastic, with its flow of interior monologue, the way she uses time and how she describes the passing of time. But there is something else that stayed with me forever since the day I have read Mrs Dalloway. Her writing has an exhilarating quality, an effervescent intensity of feeling that made me think of a German expression which I adore: “Champagner Wetter” or “Champagne weather”. Champagne weather is used to describe a very fresh but sunny spring morning on which the air is still cool, nature has returned to life, the first tentative, tiny leaves appear, the first blossoms can be seen. It’s already a bit warm in the sun but still chilly in the shade. It’s like drinking the first glass out of a freshly opened, nicely cooled Champagne bottle. It bubbles and goes to your head. Virginia Woolf’s novels are full of scenes conveying the mood of champagne weather.  

I will write a “proper” review once I have finished the book but I’m enjoying it too much to wait until then. So far I can see that the story is told chronologically and sequentially, nothing daring really. But there is already a very striking way of writing about people’s interior lives. One of the main themes is the role of women and the way they are treated or rather mistreated by society. Parts of the novel reminded me of E.M. Forster, others of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. Rachel, one of the main characters, has a lot in common with Isabel Archer. Still there are scenes which are already typically Woolf. She had a very particular way of showing the passing of time or how the interior worlds of people coexist. There is a wonderful scene towards the middle of the novel in which we see a hotel at night.  First we see it from the outside, all its windows are illuminated, the people are getting ready to go to bed. Later we approach and enter the building, brief glimpses into the various rooms draw pictures of the inhabitants. At the end of the scene, they are lying in their beds, separated only by thin walls, dreaming or just sleeping, drifting off into unknown territory, as if on a big ocean liner. It is a recurring scene really, as the book starts with the voyage on a ship.

It is possible that I will start rereading her books in chronological order when I have finished The Voyage Out and Moments of Being. My favourite of her books are Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Flush. I didn’t like The Years or The Waves much and can never even keep them apart. I also didn’t care for Orlando at all. Not sure why, it’s generally a favourite of many people but I remember I found reading it was painfully boring. Jacob’s Room and Between the Acts were two I liked but the memory of them is barely more than a vague impression.

I often hear people say, they are intimidated by Virginia Woolf, just like many are intimidated by Proust or James Joyce. For those who didn’t dare reading her so far, The Voyage Out and Flush are excellent starting points.

Have you read The Voyage Out or any other of Virginia Woolf’s novels? Which is your favourite?

Henry Green: Party Going (1939)

Take a handful of idle bored rich people, put them in a confined space and see what happens. A minor writer may turn this tested recipe into a dull and boring exercise, a major writer will produce an amazing piece of writing which isn’t only brilliantly well written but a psychologically accurate comedy of manners.

Heavy fog has trapped the members of a party about to board a train for France in a London railway station. They were to leave for a couple of weeks. Max, their host, organizes these parties regularly and who is invited and who is not is of great importance.  Surely they cannot stay outside on the train platforms in the middle of those brutal and vulgar masses who will end up drinking and singing, now, can they? So they leave their porters and their luggage outside and move into the railway station hotel where Max has reserved some rooms for them.

This stay at the hotel may have been comfortable enough, boring, yes, but sipping tea, taking baths and slagging off others behind their back is amusing for a while. Unfortunately Claire’s aunt has committed the indecency of falling ill and becoming quite the nuisance for all of them. It’s particularly horrible for Claire as everybody knows she will board that train, no matter what, but, before she can do so, she must convince the partygoers that she isn’t heartless, no, on the very contrary, it’s her aunt’s fault entirely. Nobody should dare falling ill and spoil other people’s fun. Here’s Claire talking to Evelyn about her aunt.

(…) absolutely everyone else is dead and mother’s abroad as you know. It’s rather touching that’s why she came to see us off really it’s her only link. No, but it’s not touching actually because she goes and gets ill. Oh, Evelyn, it’s so unfair, isn’t it?

I’m sure you have realized by now that these characters are far from kind or pleasant. They are a bunch of egotistic, selfish and spoilt people who take everything that gets between them and their pleasure as a personal affront. Be it the fog, the sick aunt or anything else.

What made Party Going such an incredible read is the way it is told. Point of views change constantly, people move from one person to the other and always pretend to be different from how they really are. What we see is exactly what we would see if we were present at that very moment with only a little background information on the motives and true feelings but no other background information whatsoever. Still I felt, I got to know these people better than some of those whose whole biography I have been informed of in other novels. While reading Party Going we feel like unseen guests eavesdropping on other guests who are all nasty and mean behind each other’s backs and constantly pretend to think or feel different from what they let perceive. Sometimes the deception is minor but on many occasions the discrepancy between the true feelings and what is shown is considerable.

When Alex came to an end and she had not properly heard what he had been saying so she said something almost under her breath, or so low that he in his turn should not catch what she had said, but so that it would be enough to tell him she was listening.

There are shocking moments in the novel. Especially when these people talk about the masses, the poor. They, of course, are a nuisance too. Their maids and porters are not perceived as human beings, they are just commodities.

“Would you like me to come down with you to see if we can do anything about your things?”

This seemed to Julia the sweetest thing she had ever heard, to offer to brave those frantic drinking hordes of awful people all because someone was upset about their charms (…)

There really isn’t a likable character in this book, apart from the enigmatic handsome Max whose two girlfriends both appear, although he thought he got rid of one of them. Max is very rich, generous and quite elusive. Kind to everyone but hard to keep in one place. He likes his drink too much and this is part of his charm, as we are told, because all the girls think they will be able to save him.

It’s like watching a movie, the dialogue, and the commentary that accompanies it, is fantastic. I know some people will think this too experimental but I thought this was maybe one of the most accomplished pieces of modernist writing I’ve read in a long time. It works like a clock. All the pieces fit into each other, all the little cogwheels gear into each other and move at a steady pace. More surprisingly, Green not only has an ear for dialogue and is a brilliant observer, he also writes quite beautiful passages.

It was so luxurious he nodded, perhaps it was also what she had put on her hair, very likely it may have been her sleep reaching out over him, but anyway he felt so right he slipped into it too and dropped off on those outspread wings into her sleep with his, like two soft evenings meeting.

The novel is available in a collection with two other novels Loving, Living, Party Going. I’m grateful to obooki for pointing out Party Going because I had planned to read Loving instead. Party Going is brilliant.

The review is part of Henry Green week hosted by Stu on Winstonsdad’s Blog. If you are interested, here is his introductory post. I know that quite a few people take part in Henry Green week and I’m curious to see what they read and how they liked it.

Literature and War Readalong January 30 2012: Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore

Two or three years ago I read Helen Dunmore’s The Siege a painfully realistic and harrowing account on the siege of Leningrad. This was such a stunning novel, one of the best WWII novels I have ever read, accurate, moving, descriptive and captivating despite the bleak topic. When I discovered that she had written a novel on WWI, Zennor in Darkness, I didn’t hesitate and put it on this year’s readalong list right away. Helen Dunmore hasn’t only written novels, but short stories, children’s books and poetry as well. I think her wonderful prose shows that.

The story is set in a Cornish coastal village in 1917 and combines fact with fiction. D.H. Lawrence and his wife have indeed stayed there but the story is invented. The core theme seems similar to Return of the Soldier and deals with shell shock. But it is also a story of artists and writers. I have a weakness for books about artists and love Cornwall as a setting.

Here are the first sentences

One faint shriek. Then another. Three girls fling themselves over the top of the last dune and skid down warm flanks of sand. Marram grass slashes their ankles and sand kicks up behind Clare and Peggy, into Hannah’s eyes. She is the heaviest and the last.

Have you read Helen Dunmore?


The discussion starts on Monday, 30 January 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Kat Banyard: The Equality Illusion (2010)

Women apparently have never had it so good. In today’s supposedly post-feminist world, cosmetic surgery is seen as empowering, lap dancing as a sexually liberating career, and the lack of women from boardroom a result of women’s free choices. In The Equality Illusion, campaigner Kat Banyard argues passionately and articulately that feminism continues to be one of the most urgent and relevant social justice campaigns today.

Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Men and Women Today takes an unflinching look at what it means to be a woman today and, due to the fact that Banyard is British, especially in the UK .

Still, whether you are an Afghan woman fighting for girl’s rights of literacy or an American doctor performing late stage abortions, you have one thing in common: you lead a dangerous life and might end up being killed. Both things happened.  The first happened in Afghanistan in 2006, the second in the US in 2009. They illustrate the illusion of equality and show what a global phenomenon it is.

Banyard structured the book like a day in a woman’s life and tied each part to a topic. Getting up – beauty myths, going to work – sexual harassment and the opposite of equal opportunity, coming home – domestic violence and unwanted pregnancies, evening out- lap dancing clubs, porn industry and prostitution… This structure works very well.

The key topics are beauty and looks, equal opportunity at work, poverty, literacy, the sex industry, domestic violence, abuse, relationships and children. Banyard looks at everyday life and how it is lived and not so much at the ideas beneath it all. There is an introdcutory chapter on false assumptions about gender but it is quite short.

To say the least, I was shocked about a lot of the data and statistics and saddened by most of the individual stories. Whoever said that feminism wasn’t needed anymore or that we were by now equal?

Women are to this day among the poorest of the world. In some African countries little girls do not go to school because they are raped on the way. In the UK some girls have bad grades because there is constant sexual harassment at school and all the teachers do is saying “boys will be boys”. In some countries girls are forbidden to learn to write and read.

Humiliating and degrading girls serves to highlight just how masculine boys really are. And so, sexist bullying and sexual harassment are an integral part of daily school life for many girls. (p.67)

What women have to face at work isn’t much better. Cases of all forms of sexual harassment are frequent. Women with children do not have a lot of chances to make a career, especially not, when, as seems to be the case, men do not help enough when it comes to child rearing. Payment is still not equal at all and this stems to a large part from the fact that many jobs performed by women are considered to be less valuable and are paid less.

Legislation can create the illusion that equality has been achieved. But just because it is officially illegal to pay women less than men for equal work, to sack them for being pregnant, or to sexually harass them, it doesn’t mean theses things don’t go on. There is a huge gulf between policy and practice, and much current legislation – particularly around equal pay – lacks real bite. In a society where women still do the majority of unpaid caring, rigid workplace structures and the long-hours culture mean they pay a huge penalty for doing so. (p.101)

There is a trend, especially in the UK to normalize the porn industry. According to the interviews in this book, there is no such thing as “elegant lap dancing clubs”. Sooner or later all the women are harassed and coerced into having sex. Prostitution may be a choice but only because the women have not much to lose. They have often been abused as children, are very poor, have no education or just had no idea what they were getting into. “At work” they face brutality and violence on top of the degrading activity of selling their bodies.

I think the way society has glorified prostitution is very sad. I believe young women all over the world are becoming more curious (about going into prostitution) due to the positive light that is shown on this horrid profession. (p.145)

Domestic violence is extremely wide-spread, rape is on the up and many perpetrators are never convicted and if they are the punishment is ludicrous.

What bothers me personally the most in my personal life are two things. One is something I’m facing at work- there is no such a thing as equal treatment and the other is something I see happen, namely the overwhelming presence of the influence of the porn industry. Porn practices, fashion and looks seem to become normalized to the extent where you can find “sexy” underwear and clothes for little girls at the supermarket.

Compared to all this it may seem futile to debate whether all the pink toys for girls are really an issue or not but when you dig deeper, you just see that it is one of the symptoms of gender inequality. And it’s everywhere.

What I truly liked about the book, is that Kat Banyard offers hope. Her last chapter and the appendix are entirely dedicated to grassroot activism which is extremely important work and she offers a list of resources. She clearly shows how important feminism still is, that you can achieve something if you want to, it doesn’t need to be anything big and that your dedication may inspire others to follow your example. Last but not least she underlines that feminism also needs the contribution of men and they will ultimately also benefit from equality.

l read about this book on Still Life with Books. I’m really glad I read it and would love to hear from anyone who has read this or any of the other new/old publications. My first thought when I saw these new books was “But that has been done before….” Yes, it has, but apparently most of it has been forgotten. And we need books that back up the topics with actual data or the books get dismissed as being outdated.

I hope I might finally get to Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender next.

Louise Welsh: Tamburlaine Must Die (2004)

It’s 1593 and London is a city on edge. Under threat from plague and war, it’s a desperate place where strangers are unwelcome and severed heads grin from spikes on Tower Bridge. Playwright, poet, spy, Christopher Marlowe has three days to live. Three days in which he confronts dangerous government factions, double agents, necromancy, betrayal and revenge in his search for the murderous Tamburlaine, a killer who has escaped from between the pages of Marlowe’s most violent play. The Final Testament of Christopher Marlowe is a swashbuckling adventure story of a man who dares to defy God and state and who discovers that there are worse fates than damnation.

I really enjoyed Tamburlaine Must Die. I liked Louise Welsh’s latest novel Naming the Bones (here’s the review) and wanted to read another one and I wasn’t disappointed. However I know the book got very mixed reviews and this mainly because of the language. Clearly Welsh tried to write 16th century English and might not have been 100% successful. I didn’t care or – because I’m not a native speaker – didn’t notice. I thought the language was beautiful.

In her novella Louise Welsh lets Christopher Marlowe, the famous playwright, tell his final ten days. Someone has written a libel in his name, imitating his writing, signing with the name of the main-protagonist of one of his plays, Tamburlaine. Welsh imgines how and why he must have been killed, how he spent his last days, sleeping with men and women, drinking too much, picking fights, putting himself in danger through his blasphemies.

I think Christopher Marlowe is one of the most fascinating figures of literature. An immensely gifted writer, a rake, a debauchee, a spy, a rough neck, a ruffian, an innovator and subversive man  and many other things. The book is atmospheric and evocative, you see the streets of London, the intrigue, the danger of a city afflicted by the plague, the violence of the times. Any sign of not following the Church, not being loyal to the Queen, being a homosexual were highly dangerous.

We know Marlowe escaped the dungeon but only to face death through an unknown enemy. His murder has never been solved and to this day there are many speculations.

I think I start to realize what type of historical novels I like. I like it when a writer manages to give a voice to historical figures, makes them come alive, imagines how they thought and felt.

One thing that has been criticized is that she didn’t depict a fear-ridden Marlowe although he knew he was going to be killed. I think from what I know of the man, he wasn’t too anxious, he threw himself into life until his last moment. He would have gladly gone on living, writing more plays but if this wasn’t to be, then it wasn’t. As simple as that.

The best about the book is that it sparked my imagination. I’m in the mood to read Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, The Great and Doctor Faustus which influenced Goethe and Thomas Mann and I would also be interested in reading about him.

Louise Welsh based her book to a large part on Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe but David Rigg’s The World of Christopher Marlowe sounds equally interesting.

Has anyone read any of these or other books about Tudor England?