Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall

"Margaret Attwood's the Handmaid's Tale, meets Cormac McCarthy's The Road. In Cumbria."

That's what I reckoned The Carlhullan Army was trying to be like before I got stuck in. And it's not far off my assessment now I've finished. Set in the future with an oppressive government, food shortages, war, environmental disaster and the forced sterilisation of women, the book is based on a statement from a nameless woman prisoner "Sister" on her experience on a women's commune on a farm in the northern Lake District. And while the world she's escaped from is bleak and oppressive, she thinks Carhullan will offer a freer idyllic release. Obviously in a post-apocalyptic world morality is a sharply subjective concept.

So yes, there's plenty of sisterhood and bonding in Sarah Hall's creditable addition to a steadily growing body of futuristic horror literature. There are lingering accounts of what an unimaginable life could in fact be like. She conveys effectively the power of its charismatic leader Jackie Nixon, and how she manipulates the community she has established (recalling Alex Garland's The Beach). She also builds a picture of how zealotry for an ideal ultimately destroys it.

But much as I enjoyed The Carhullan Army, and much as I stuck with it through its 209 pages, I thought it fell down in two aspects. First, it suffers from the restrictions of an odd structure - seven sections of a statement, which doesn't read like a statement at all, with chunks deliberately missing. And until the very sudden and rushed and utterly unsatisfying ending, the second big failing, it added nothing to the way the story hung together.

Yet another reason for enjoying this book was the location. My mother grew up in Penrith (where the book starts and changed to "Rith") and knows the setting of Carhullan very well - the range of peaks from Penrith to Ambleside which the Romans called High Street.

With a bit of a polish it would make a good TV series (but they've probably been there already with Survivors). It has been made into a Radio 3 play - with some excellent casting.

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