D is for Dystopia

To be honest, I blame my dad. Encouraging your very young children to watch the movie version of Watership Down over and over again is only going to lead to them having weird views about how the world works, the English countryside, socio-political powers … and rabbits. I know it’s not classic dystopia, more of a fantasy novel with a heroic quest theme (Ah! The Quest! My favourite stories), but I tend to include Richard Adam’s tale with those other books where the world has gone wrong which were formative in my literary education. I also think the term ‘dystopia’ covers such a wide array of stories that we can mould, stretch and bash it to suit a number of literary purposes. Which is possibly what I’m doing now…  

Hello! We are with D and D is for Dystopia and our featured book is The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall.  When announcing this as the next book on the blog, I quoted my old high school foe WB Yeats and this book also reminds me of him because my brain likes to partner ‘Carhullan’ with ‘Cuchulain’, the legendary Irish warrior who Yeats was so fond of. But we’re not in Ireland now, we’re in England, but a different England where indeed the world has gone nightmarishly awry (thus, dystopia, got it yet?).

My feeling with stories set in a crapped-out future is that they need to be equally disturbing and compelling to be satisfying. Not disturbing in an escaped-convict-dangling-a-bleeding-head way, but in that cold-stomach, the-world-has-gone-topsy, I-don’t-know-what’s-around-the-next-corner way. And despite this disturbance you feel the need to keep reading; because the writing is so good, because the story or world is so fascinating, because you want to see the characters safe, because you hope to all hopes that if you just keep turning the pages maybe something good will happen, because viewing your world through a hellish looking-glass can give you so much perspective.

In Hall’s tale we follow one woman’s escape from the confines of an awful, authoritarian-controlled city to a fabled rural community of women warriors, where she learns how to be herself again and how to try to take the world back. Hall’s world is well-created: it’s believable, it’s awful, it’s frightening, its downfall is comprehensible and possible. And it’s close enough to our own that it’s not hard to imagine a future like it, where a first world nation has sunk into ruin, reliant on overseas aid, where people are squashed into disease-ridden tenements, where wild dogs roam the streets, where a faceless authority control everything, where women are implanted with devices to prevent them falling pregnant and where police can do random checks to make sure the device is intact.

I believe in Sister’s (our protagonist) world and in her desire to escape it and join the self-sufficient community of women living off the grid in the mountains; I believe in the community of Carhullan and their survivalist lives; I believe that this band of warrior women can’t be all they are cracked up to be; that life is still hard; and that they can’t just live for ever after safe and happy; that something else will have to be done for the good of everyone, for the long term. But there was some little thing missing in my reading of The Carhullan Army which meant that I wasn’t completely ‘on board’  – to use a terrible managerial term – with the tale. It’s just a little bit quiet. Just a tad. And I felt ever so slightly removed from the characters and the story. I didn’t care quite enough and my personal experience of these sorts of books – when I love them – is that  you care a lot, that you’re thrown into this topsy-turvy world, dragged through the centre as it shifts and quakes, that you feel you have no choice but to witness, to experience, to finish the tale, to be involved. I liked The Carhullan Army, I like the idea and I think it’s written by a very good writer, but on finishing the novel I wished I had cared more, felt more, known more about the characters.

There is much about this novel to recommend, like and admire; it gives you a lot to think about, it just didn’t give me everything I was hoping for. It seems unfair to criticise, then, when mostly I can say I think the book is well written, inventive and that the story carried through my reading attention. I guess sometimes those stories which seem to fall just short of the mark can feel more disappointing than those which failed miserably. Such is the reading life.

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6 thoughts on “D is for Dystopia

  1. News From Nowhere is my favourite dystopian vision. William Morris. Utter genius.

    I agree with you about stories which just fall shy of our expectations. They are far more upsetting than those which completely and thoroughly disappoint.

  2. I hear you re. Watership Down…imagine my horror when at 8, we moved to a semi-rural district complete with wild rabbits…I still can’t listen to “Bright Eyes” without welling up…

    • I was obsessed with Bright Eyes when I was smaller. I heard (and saw) Mr Garfunkel do it live last year and got all teary. Watership Down has a lot to answer for.

  3. I have to agree with you, reluctantly. If I am really honest, I felt similarly about this book–quite brilliant in some ways, but not perfect (and is perfection really too much to ask?!).

    Like you, further emotional purchase on the main character would have helped. Like you, some parts of the story were frustratingly vague: I wanted to see more of the Authority, more of how the society functioned now that they had assumed power, more of why and how they could maintain their predominance.

    The story was uneven and unbalanced: the device of the prison records was somewhat unconvincing, and the elisions between installments–which could have been integral to discoveries or omissions in the plot–ended up seeming arbitrary.

    That said, it is sort of set up as a fan/groupie/celeb story–a character entranced by a dominant and popular ‘other’, and on that front it does deliver: Jackie is a mesmerising character, and cleverly drawn in glimpses.

    And the language sings. I loved, passionately, the landscape; the rough, harsh and unforgiving moors of Cumbria, which lives vibrantly in Hall’s prose, and I loved the description of life at Carhullan, and the women who live there.

    Great post!

  4. Is perfection too much to ask for? What a question!

    And I agree with you (who agrees with me – hurrah!) about the vagueness and uneveness. I don’t think the prison idea worked – it was set up and not followed through – there could have been much more there, and I think readers would feel disappointed with this. Bit of an anti-prop in a way.

    But as you say – the language is wonderful, the sense of of place (it made me think of Wales some, though I know Cumbria is closer to Scotland), the intensity of Sister’s focus on Jackie, on that one person she has pinned her hopes to.

    It’s not always a bad thing when a story leaves you wanting more… it just depends on why you want more…

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