The Carhullan Army

The Carhullan Army

Title: The Carhullan Army

Author: Sarah Hall

Review by Hannah Styles

The world we find in The Carhullan Army is a nightmarish vision of the future, where only fractions of the world we know today remain. Oil has run out, climate change has accelerated, entire areas of the UK have disappeared into the sea after a catastrophic flooding event and the economy has collapsed.

This is a dystopian Britain, where practically every fear modern society has for the future has come true. We are instantly unnerved by a landscape that feels familiar, and yet is unrecognisable from the country we know. What is most unsettling is this novel narrates a realistic decline of Britain, based on issues that are visible in the world today. The totalitarian society where citizens have lost all agency is envisioned as the result of anthropogenic climate change, foreign war, overdependence on oil and economic collapse.

With this narrative, Sarah Hall provides a provocative exploration of the future of gender politics, human rights and social existence. Citizens are ordered into designated houses and jobs, female contraception is compulsory and no one is allowed to leave their town. In this society where individual agency has been eliminated, we are introduced to our narrator: a young woman in a struggling marriage who refuses to divulge her real name. To the reader, she is simply ‘Sister’, and she alone seems to oppose the status quo. Like everyone around them, her husband has slowly but surely accepted his new life, leaving Sister entirely alone in her rebellion.

Uncertain future

Sister believes her only hope is a group of “unofficial women” rumoured to live in the isolated countryside of Carhullan. Carhullan and its residents represent her only hope, and in the opening chapters we witness her escape into an uncertain future, armed only with an inherited gun and her belief in the farm’s existence. What she finds at Carhullan appears at first to be Utopia; but it soon becomes clear that utopian dreaming cannot endure the outside influence of a dystopian world, and the reader watches as the perfect existence unravels into a fundamentalist regime.

Hall’s third novel joins Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time in the rather niche genre of eco-feminist dystopian fiction, a genre that forces the reader to consider the future of gender politics in post-apocalyptic worlds. The genre interacts with gendered history by evoking the simple notion that when apocalypse knocks, women will be the first to lose their agency. What Halls delivers is not a gripping tale of drama, sci-fi and death, but a provocative social commentary that honours the traditional purpose of dystopian fiction as social commentary.

Social critique

Just as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 were social critiques on the consequences of war and totalitarian states, The Carhullan Army is a social critique on the post-9/11 fundamentalism and the fragile relationship between politics and ecology. Hall echoes the themes of totalitarian dystopias, subjugation of citizens and loss of identity that were explored by Orwell and Huxley years before, but brings these themes into conversation with contemporary culture by envisioning a credible decline of the today’s world.

She also engages excellently with these themes through a focus on gender politics and a complicated relationship between Utopia and dystopia. Carhullan is the novel’s Utopia, while Britain itself is dystopia, until the ladies at Carhullan are forced to deconstruct their Utopia and adopt fundamentalist policies that mirror those of The Authority.

Hall’s message is clear: if Utopia represents hope, then dystopia represents the dark side of hope – the hope for a way out.

Review by Hannah Styles

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