Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army won the Torque Control Future Classics by women last year. Readers of Torque Control are, naturally, erudite and possess excellent taste; despite this, I have to confess that I’d resisted reading this one for a while. Having done so (finally) I am regretting this decision and will be reading some more of Sarah Hall’s oeuvre soon(ish).
Narrated by an unnamed woman, ‘Sister’, in a series of confessions – though not apologies – to an interrogator at a time after the events depicted, the novel to explores repressive regimes, our reactions to them and how they corrupt.
The Carhullan Army is set at an unspecified near future Britain. Though it is a dystopian view of the future, it is one that a present day reader can all too easily understand and believe readily. The climate of Britain has clearly changed, there is little fuel available and people engage in work that is dangerous, unfulfilling and entirely pointless.
Sister, being aware of a retreat at Carhullan, escapes her life under the cosh of the repressive and intrusive regime that has taken power in the wake of the crises that have befallen Britain. One does, however, always have the impression that (and in spite of the fragmented nature of its power) that the government that rules represents the heirs to our current leaders. That is to say, it is an evolution, rather than a break with the past. Once there, however, though she gains some freedom it is immediately evident that the leader of Carhullan, Jackie Nixon, is autocratic and paranoid. Whether she was always thus is not entirely clear. The residents of Carhullan had been subject to rumour and innuendo from the start and all that we truly know of it is the view given by Sister.
The Carhullan Army, as noted before, explores power. However, it has depth and subtlety beyond this. For example, one detail that particularly interested me was the forced insertion of contraceptive devices into women. I considered this in several ways. Firstly, it represents an unpleasant intrusion by the state into the bodies of women. That it is an unwanted penetration carries suggests that the state is literally raping women. That it is suggested at one point in the novel that the settlement may have started life as a women’s refuge adds a little to this idea.
Secondly, preventing people from conceiving – and here I might be reading a little too much into it – reminds me of the kind of eugenics policies favoured by more than one US state in the past and Sweden until 1975. That the government of the novel might have an idea that some people are undesirable is given further credence by an aside by a character that a close friend was deported.
Finally, it is an interesting reversal of the behaviour of people who wish to remove the right for women to choose. Usually, when we are considering the reproductive rights of women, the right to choose is in terms of promoting, firstly, the use of contraception and , secondly, the right to safe abortion. In the world today, whenever someone is launching an attack on females in this way, it is in picketing abortion clinics or enacting laws that ensure that the only way to prevent the birth of an unwanted child is to seek the services of illegal and possibly dangerous clinics. In this novel, however, the right to choose is removed in the opposite manner. When she arrives at Carhullan (after they’ve brutalised her) one of the first things that is done for Sister is the removal of the device, thus giving her choice again. I think that this is a valid way of thinking about this aspect of the novel. Freedom to choose is, after all, at the core of the debate around abortion.
That Sister gains freedom on leaving the town in which she lived would seem not to be in question. She is no longer forced into wasteful work, her reproductive rights are assured and she is no longer monitored at all times. On arriving at Carhullan, however, it is clear that, if this was an entirely free place, this is no longer the case. On arrival, she is thrown into a shit-encrusted box, that is swimming in piss and left until she can no longer bear it. This exercising of power by Jackie Nixon (a former soldier) does appear to bear the hallmarks of toughening up new recruits but it does lie at odds with the earlier assertion that this is a libertarian enclave.
This leads me to a problem that I had with the novel (though by the time I had finished, I did tend to find that it was entirely in keeping with where the novel had led us). Sister seeks freedom and – to an extent – she finds it. However there is one troubling aspect. Though I would argue strongly that, for many, social progress and justice have entirely failed to keep up with material advances, the back to nature aspect of the settlement remove one form of repression and replace it with another. The inhabitants of Carhullan are forced into what amounts to little better than subsistence farming. While there are – many – aspects of industrialised farming that trouble me (both environmentally and socially) I’m not entirely convinced that reverting to that is intrinsically a good thing. The removal of drudgery from day to day life is, surely, a worthwhile progressive goal? Though, admittedly, in the context of this novel, this does represent the freeing of Sister from pointless work to work from which she can derive personal satisfaction.
A small aside – one other aspect of the novel that particularly struck me is that it seems rooted in place; this reminded me a great deal of Alan Garner and is, I think, A Good Thing.
Picking up the main theme of the novel, however, The Carhullan Army culminates in a battle against government forces by the inhabitants of Carhullan. This is never seen by the reader; rather this happens off page. That Hall chooses to do this is in keeping with her theme, however. That war is brutal is not in any question. What is of more concern is how we got there. At first glance, one might think that Carhullan is a place where people go to be free and live a life free of violence and coercion. Indeed, it is for this reason that Sister chooses to escape there. However, it soon becomes clear that fear and paranoia and Jackie Nixon’s autocratic leadership is creating a place which, while certainly more desirable than the world Sister has left behind, is reduced to behaving in a manner which resembles the tyranny of the regime.
Fortunately, Hall doesn’t provide an answer for the reader. That the government had to be resisted is clear. That Jackie Nixon had to torture her soldiers in order to break them down and build them up stronger is less so. Of course, this is me, as a reader, bringing my own instinctive revulsion at repression and personal violence to the novel. You may well feel differently about it.
A deserved winner of the Tiptree Award in 2007, I regret that I resisted reading this for so long. Excellent stuff and, if you haven’t tried before, I suggest that you do so.