Sarah Hall is garnering a reputation as a strong regional voice with her flavoursome historical fiction. Her first two novels, Haweswater and The Electric Michelangelo (shortlisted for the MAN Booker Prize in 2004), were both set in the early 20th century in her native Cumbria. Her fourth, to be published next year, promises a similar background. At first sight, The Carhullan Army might seem a departure, being a prophetic, futuristic novel in the tradition of H G Wells, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Will Self's recent The Book of Dave, but, arguably, the huge brooding presence of the Lake District secures it tightly to the body of her work.
It's set in the scarily near future, with oil running out and climate change beginning to bite. War rages in China and South America, while Britain, completely dependent on America for food and energy, is run by an all-pervasive dictatorship called the Authority. Citizens' bleak lives are completely regulated. Women are forced to wear contraceptive coils. This big picture is tantalising, so it's frustrating that Hall seems more beguiled by the worm's-eye view, in particular the first-person account of a 32-year-old woman called Sister, who writes as she languishes in a Lancaster prison cell.
There's something familiar about Sister's claustrophobic field of vision that comes with the genre, but her tale is no less suspenseful or effective for this template. It begins several years before with her night-time escape from the town of Rith, following a traumatic encounter with the contraception police. Abandoning her failed marriage and her job in a factory making useless machine parts, risking loss of her precious "official" citizen status, she sets off into the mountains in search of a quasi-mythical outlaw community known as Carhullan.
What she eventually finds is no Shangri-La, but a remote farmstead run and fiercely guarded by 60 women under the tight control of a tough cookie named Jackie. Hall brilliantly evokes the life of the commune, where each individual has been honed – sometimes brutally – to fit in as part of a whole. Her detailed descriptions of the daily routines of subsistence farming in the beautiful but unforgiving landscape are wonderful. Sister undergoes a complete sort of physical and psychological stripping-down, yet comes to view Carhullan as near perfection because it ran "a high level of courtesy and enlightenment, a society that celebrated female strength and tolerance". To most of us, though, it would seem pretty bleak, lacking much in the way of spirituality, poetry or humour, never mind the rather weedy selection of men available in a nearby settlement and the constant sinister undercurrent of violence.
Carhullan has a military unit which Sister joins, after Jackie learns that the community is under threat. The only way any of them can survive, she decrees, is to strike first, and she trains her Amazon SAS brutally, mercilessly, to the limits of endurance. Hall is unflinching, yet sensitive, in her anatomisation of the psychology of survival, but she draws back from describing bigger events, in this case the final climactic battle, skipping straight to its aftermath instead. Excelsior is always a good motto.Reuse content