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.