I picked up Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (2007) while searching for texts that would fit the sub-genre of ecodystopian fiction – texts where the dystopian society is not only bought into being by economic and political developments, but also by climate change and other environmental pressures. Often compared to texts such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Marge Piercy’s The Woman on the Edge of Time, The Carhullan Army presents a feminist dystopia based in Britain, with the narrative focused on the northern region of the Lake District. Climate change is apparent from the first pages of the novel. The cold and snow are described as something belonging to the past and flooding appears to be a common occurrence, with people forced to abandon their homes for temporary accommodation as flood defences fail. Fuel is scarce, and efforts to maintain supply results in military action in China and Venezuela. After suffering a recession and then a financial crash, a ‘ten-year recovery’ plan is implemented by the ‘Forward Party’, which later becomes ‘the Authority’ as general elections are suspended. The dystopian society that emerges is dependent on America for food and resources, enforcing strict rationing and cramming its population into compact apartment blocks. People are given menial jobs to keep them occupied and women are forced to wear contraceptive coils, monitored through the humiliating practice of random checks.
The novel is narrated in first-person from the perspective of a protagonist who is given no name and referred to only as ‘Sister’. Sick of the Authority’s control of her body and estranged from her husband, she leaves the town of Rith to travel up into the hills to find Carhullan – an enclave of ‘unofficial’ women living on a self-sufficient farm. Free of any male presence, Sister finds Carhullan to be a feminist utopia of sorts, marvelling at the fierce strength, dedication, and compassion displayed by its residents. The eclectic and deviant appearances of the women, who wear various fashions, shave their heads, and wear blue tattoos, conveys a liberated sense of identity, suggesting a community of individuals who are bought together by their differences, and not just their similarities. The commune is led by Jackie Nixon, an intimidating and uncompromising woman with a university education and a military background, who runs a military-style ‘unit’ within the farm. It is these women in particular that impress Sister with their physical strength and resilience, demonstrating that women can fulfil the role of soldier as well as any man. Joining Jackie’s unit, Sister revels in the physicality of her female body:
‘She did not make monsters of us. She simply gave us the power to remake ourselves into those inviolable creatures the God of Equality had intended us to be. We knew she was deconstructing the old disabled versions of our sex, and that her ruthlessness was adopted because those constructs were built to endure. She broke down the walls that had kept us contained. There was a fresh red field on the other side, and its rich soil were growing all the flowers of war that history had never let us gather’ (p.187).
Here, traditional feminine qualities are rejected in favour of strength and a capacity for violence which is captured in the almost celebratory tone of the final sentence. Significantly, the feminist critique in the novel is nuanced and explores different types of female power solidarity, from Jackie’s grit brutalist to Shruti’s loyalty.
The character of Jackie reminded me of J.G. Ballard’s Dr Barbara Rafferty in the novel Rushing to Paradise, which seems appropriate considering both novels are to a large extent studies of charismatic and fanatical female leaders as much as they are texts about environmental concerns. Jackie and Barbara thrive in the face of adversity, even encouraging further conflict to sustain their extreme and sometimes schizophrenic personalities. Both novels also highlight the attraction of violence, and the ways in which it may be justified through calls for justice or freedom. It is these questions of violence and gender that define the novel. Although climate change undoubtedly features in the narrative, there is no real critique directed towards it. It could perhaps be argued that the simplicity of life on the Carhullan farm presents a model of environmental sustainability and restraint, but it seems to me that it is the self-sufficiency of the women themselves that is more important. Meanwhile the communal labour of the women presents an idea of equality that is absent in the capitalist society they left behind.
Personally, I felt this novel has a great deal of potential that it failed to fulfil. À la Atwood, the novel is framed as a transcript recovered from a prison in Lancaster that gives Sister’s statement, much like the recordings found which give Offred’s story. However, the narrative does not read as a statement taken from a prisoner – the tense, tone, and style do not support the purported form. The frame consequently adds nothing formally to the narrative and is thus a bit of an empty gesture. The novel is very readable however. Some readers have commented that the narrative is slow-paced, and it’s true that Sister doesn’t meet the women of Carhullan until about halfway through the narrative. I’d agree that the narrative does drag in places, however I enjoyed the novel’s personal, self-reflective style, which is characteristic of dystopian fiction, limiting the perspective of the novel to a singular character who grows disillusioned with their society and seeks to regain a sense of individuality and identity. For Sister, this sense of identity is found in her reconnection to the natural environment, another common trope from classic dystopian fiction. Climbing through the brooding Cumbrian landscape, Sister reflects that: ‘I was aware of my own warm predominance in the environment, my inhabited skin, my being. I suddenly felt myself again, a self I had not been for so long’ (p.41). The physicality of her body is also key in this rediscovery of the self: ‘As I stood and looked in the direction of the summits I felt properly dressed in my own muscles, and ballasted by my sense of physicality, as if I belonged outside, away from the crowding, the metered artificial lighting, the ethics of a lost society’ (p.42). While the restricted and monitored society of Rith, and indeed the restriction and monitoring of her own body, leave Sister distanced from her sense of self, her journey through the lake district gives her a sense of connection to and ownership of her body and her individuality. The detailed and arresting descriptions of Sister’s interaction with her surrounding environment are a real strength of this novel.
My greatest disappointment with this narrative is that there is no denouement. Making use of her prison transcript frame, Hall simply inserts the note ‘Data Lost’. The entire invasion and occupation of Rith is skipped over, simply revealing that the women are captured at the end. As a result, the tensions and relationships established in the novel felt a little wasted. This rushed ending, together with the overall structure of the narrative, made the text feel a little like a first draft rather than a completed novel, which was a shame considering the text felt like it could have done so much more.