When they pushed me inside I had not struggled, only tried to explain myself to the two women. I'd told them I had come beause I believed in them. Because of how I felt inside. Because there was a coil in me, fury in me; something clawing to get out. I had come because what was left of the country was the disfigurement of its sickness, the defects left by its disease, and I would not let it infect me.
The fourth Clarke Award shortlister to be discussed - The Carhullan Army, by Sarah Hall - takes us into the near future once more, to a women's separatist settlement in the north of an England laid waste by economic and environmental disaster. It is couched as as a series of transcripts, some surviving only incompletely, from the interrogation of a female prisoner under the auspices of an "Insurgency Prevention (Unrestricted Powers) Act". (In case anyone is keeping a tally, that's Fear Type #4 of this year's shortlist, the Dystopian Repressive Government). Over the course of seven 'files', the woman - who calls herself only Sister - describes how she left the dreary, purposeless half-life of overcrowded, strictly-controlled Rith (I assume Penrith) for the promised land of Carhullan, a self-sufficient women-only enclave in the hills of the Lake District, and what she found there.
I was the last woman to go looking for Carhullan.
It was a wet rotting October when I left. In the town the leaves had begun to drop and their yellow pulp lay on the ground. The last belt of thunderstorms and downpours were passing through the Northern region. Summer was on its way out. The atmosphere felt as if it was finally breaking apart, and at night and in the mornings something cooler had set in. It was a relief not to wake up sweating under the sheet in our room in the terrace quarters, coming out of some hot nightmare with milky dampness on my chest. I have always slept better in the winter. If feels like my pulse run slower then.
This, one of the opening passages of the novel, showcases what are arguably Hall's most important touchstones: a strong sense of place, and - related, and often merging with - a close awareness of the body. Appropriately for a story centred so much on a return to the land, the climate is something lived through and with, something felt, viscerally, that cannot be held at bay by man-made constructions and controls. Perhaps inevitably, there's a degree of pathetic fallacy at work, too; a little further on, she observes, "Even the rain is different now; erratic, violent, not the constant grey drizzle of old postcards, jokes, and television reports. It's rain that feels wounded."
The final few lines, meanwhile, with their emphasis on both physicality and the images we have of our bodies, put me very strongly in mind of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, inaugural winner of this very award. The Carhullan Army has been repeatedly compared to The Handmaid's Tale - largely, I suspect, for the outline similarities, both books being 'literary' near-future dystopias with a focus on women's experience of repression. But on this theme of the body, there certainly are resonances. Here is Atwood's Offred experiencing emotional stress and sexual frustration, for example:
I lie in bed, still trembling. You can wet the rim of a glass and run your finger around the rim and it will make a sound. This is what it feels like: this sound of glass. I feel like the word shatter.
Hall's first two chapters, accounting between them for over a third of the book, take Sister from Rith to Carhullan, both physcially and emotionally. Fleeing the confines of Rith in the early morning, Sister spends a day travelling through autumnal rain to the farm, reflecting on the situation she has left behind as she goes. All the backstory is delivered and finished with by the time she reaches Carhullan: the food and fuel shortages, the economic decline, the confinement of the bulk of the population to the creaking towns, dependent on overseas tinned food handouts and crammed several families to each terraced house.
This latter development is known as "Reorganisation", an initiative led by the (faceless) new government, the "Authority". The generic terms used for these things, coupled with the lack of exploration of their nature or of how they came about, indicates where Hall's interest lies. The novel is about not interrogating repressive authority, but examining its effects; it is not about the specific, but the universal, something that is also reflected in Sister's refusal to give her previous name, and in the way she never really emerges from the text as a distinct personality, subsuming her individuality in the story she tells. We never truly know who she is as a person; she makes herself an everywoman, self-effacing, a vehicle for sharing both her message and the physical experience of being a woman at Carhullan.
Fuel has become a vanishingly rare resource, and civilian transport is all but non-existent, giving Sister a jolt when - some miles out of Rith on the day of her escape - she accepts a lift from a man who monitors the operations of a nearby dam, one of the few people authorised to live outside a city:
I had not been in a car for years. I'd handed my keys and personal information in along with everyone else, and I'd forgotten what it was like to be in control of a vehicle, to be enclosed but free to go anywhere. Watching him dip the clutch and flick on the wiper blades felt like a dream or a lost memory.
The population is controlled, in the sense of both the growth of a secret-police state and the mandatory insertion of coils in women's bodies to prevent conception. Life is organised around work shifts - nothing in particular is manufactured, the work is simply to give people something to get up for (or to force them to). Sister recalls the breakdown of her marriage, in tandem with her own breakdown, this repressive society's assault on selfhood and privacy destroying any hope of meaningful intimacy ("In bed he tried to negotiate, and have us agree physically, as if I could separate my mind from my body and he could communicate with one if not the other.")
The answer, she comes to believe with increasing desperation and fervency, lies at Carhullan. The farm has been in existence since before the worst of the economic and political ruin; she recalls seeing some of the women visiting the market at Rith when she was younger, and has collected newspaper clippings about them. Hostile stories abound - all the traditional fears of women who choose, who dare, to live without men:
Among the locals, speculation about the lives they led was rife, and it was often cruel, or filled with titillation. They were nuns, religious freaks, communists, convicts. They were child-deserters, men-haters, cunt-lickers, or celibates. They were, just as they had been hundreds of years ago, witches, up to no good in the sticks.
Nevertheless, the idea of their freedom and their isolation is talismanic for Sister. Planning the journey - forty miles - she thinks, "It was going to hurt, getting there. But it would be worth it. When I got to the farm everything would be better. The women would see to that." Their relationship to the land and their way of communal living, glimpsed through the media coverage of old, seems to offer another way, something worthier and truer than life in Rith. Sister imagines the women of Carhullan to be better people, "those who had something so true in themselves that they were willing to dwell at the edge of civilisation for the sake of it", out to create "something durable and extraordinary". Even when her welcome is far from a warm one - she is apprehended, roughly, by a hillside patrol - she continues to idealise them. Her initial hopes and expectations of them are centred on conventionally feminine comfort and support:
Finally, I felt tears of exhaustion and self-pity stinging my face. I wanted them to stop, and take hold of me, and tell me it would all be fine. I wanted them to say that I had done well, that I was here now, with them, and it was all right. But they didn't. The fell wind blew damp and cold between us. They were moving me along impersonally, as if I were an animal they were stewarding, as if I belonged to a different species.
Once Sister has been taken back to the farm, she is confined - with little question or ceremony beyond a half-glimpsed woman's shouted order - to a tiny metal "doghouse", for three days of darkness, minimal water, and psychological torment. This is clearly a defensive measure, a test of reasons for being there and her tenacity to withstand the life, as well as being symbolic of the imprisoned life she is leaving behind. (There is a clear echo of the Authority-mandated metal of her coil - described later as "pricking" her, "like a spelk under the skin" - in the sharp-edge corrugated iron of the doghouse, on which she gashes her hand.) But it is also an early marker of how the pressures of the collapsed world, the deprivations and fears, have told on the once open life at Carhullan.
When she awakes in a bed, her hurts treated, she gets the full force of Jackie Nixon, Carhullan's surviving founder and leader, a formidable figure who dominates the story and whom Sister has long dreamed of meeting:
Growing up in Rith, I had seen girls with this same quality. They had carried knives and had scrapped outside the school gates with little concern for their clothes and their looks, and there was an absence of teasing when they flirted with men. Jackie looked like a more mature and authentic version. Sitting beside me she seemed too inanimate for her voltage, too kinetic under her restfulness. It was as if her skin could barely contain the essence of her. [...] She was the superior. The alpha. As she sat watching me in the bed, I thought about all those knowing her name. Over the years she must have achieved some kind of mystical status as one of Carhullan's founders. I had still not seen the other.
The rest of the novel follows Sister as she settles into daily life at Carhullan, and then as she is adopted among one of Jackie's closest followers. The common thread through all of this is Sister's adaptation, mentally and physically, to her new environment and changing circumstances. Firstly, she must toughen herself - long sheltered by an overwhelming controlled and sedentary life - to the heavy manual labour of the farm, and we live her calluses and aching muscles along with her, and find her way among the friendship groups and factions of the dining room and the gatherings, the general meetings by which communal decisions are made. She notes the levelling effect of living at Carhullan, present in the camaraderie ("the sense of basic usefulness and dependence, feeling active and real and connected") and the physical honing of its inhabitants:
In the candlelight the women looked looked gaunt and sculpted, their eyes shadowed. They did not look like girls, middle aged and older women. They seemed to be sexless, whittled back to muscle by toil and base nourishment, creatures who bore no sense of category, no dress code other than the one they chose. Their differences in age dissolved against their bones. I knew the were strong, resilient, perhaps braver than I ever would be.
Secondly, Sister undergoes a further transformation, into a soldier, as Jackie shapes the women of the farm into the "Army" of the book's title. The aim is to take the fight to the Authority (as symbolised by their agents in Rith) before the Authority comes to burn them out, and in so doing to inspire an uprising that will liberate everyone. The adaptations of Sister's first stage are intensified. But this time the camaraderie is more insular and focused, shared between a smaller group within Carhullan, omitting and alienating others, and arising from the shared extremities of military training; this time the aches and pains come from drills rather than labour to produce food or fuel. "By the end of the three weeks," Sister notes, "I was carrying half my own weight, and I had begun to realise what a matchless device the human body was." It is a powerful exploration of the process of turning people into soldiers, and in particular of gendered notions of the body.
One of their number dies in an accident during training; an expressionless Jackie makes them sit for an hour with the woman's body, hardening themselves to death (something Sister recalls as "terrifying, and admirable"), before ordering a final 'killing' of the body with a bullet to the forehead. This echoes what we learn of the death of Jackie's partner, Vee, who was dying of cancer in the time after the Authority had taken over - precipitating Carhullan's more complete withdrawal from the world - and refused to countenance any compromise with the Authority in order to obtain medication for her. At Vee's urging, Jackie eventually ended her suffering with a single shot to the head. We might speculate that Jackie's growing militancy, and her willingness to sacrifice the haven of Carhullan for a suicidal assault on the Authority, stems from this time, although Sister has nothing conclusive to say.
At the same time as Sister's military training is taking place, the regime at Carhullan itself becomes less flexible and accommodating, and more about the increasingly-authoritarian Jackie's will. 'Security' becomes all-important, invading the women's lives with drills and orders and restrictions; resources are diverted to serving the Army. "People might think I'm an extremist," she tells Sister, "but it's for everyone's sake. They've not tried to cut my throat yet." When voices are raised in opposition to the scheme of closing Carhullan down and devoting all energies to one final, irrevocable push towards the insurgency effort, Jackie puts an end to the assemblies - although Sister, notably, reports this in the passive voice, saying that the gatherings "were" suspended, and placing the blame on those who disagreed rather than with Jackie's effort to force a consensus:
I knew we were guilty of failure and disunity as any other human society. I knew were were as defective.
This switch to the first person plural, here, is a keynote in the way Sister describes the ending of Carhullan: increasingly impersonal and collective, increasingly propagandistic (and increasingly unreliable?), albeit not without nuance, and a certain sorrow for what was passing. She acknowledges that Carhullan "was not perfect", that what was lost in the farm's transformation to an Army was "a high level of courtesy and enlightenment, a society that celebrated female strength and tolerance". But she is a true believer at the end, as her transcripts indicate:
She did not make monsters of us. She simply gave us the power to remake ourselves into those inviolable creatures the God of Equality had intended us to be. We knew she was deconstructing the old disabled versions of our sex, and that her ruthlessness was adopted because those constructs were built to endure. She broke down the walls that had kept us contained. There were a fresh red field on the other side, and in its rich soil were growing all the flowers of war that history had never let us gather. It was beautiful to walk in. As beautiful as the fells that autumn.
It is unclear how seriously we are meant to take these 'transcripts' as a narrative device; certainly some of the implications make them a slightly clumsy tool. Bar a handful of paragraphs at the beginning and end that specifically address a presumed-hostile audience, and a couple of gaps where the records were lost, the novel follows a conventional structural path, with linear story progression told in detailed descriptive prose and plenty of reported speech. There are detours into self-justification, there are backward glances and glimpses of what is to come, but absent are the repetition and circumlocutions and spur-of-the-moment, impressionistic connections we might expect from something produced in a verbal context. They are, in short, far too neat to be believeable as statements written or spoken under duress, at the behest of inimical interrogators. We could perhaps assume that the transcripts are meant to have been written by Sister herself, a voluntary and prepared (or revised) statement rather than the product of questioning or of narration to a third-party transcriber. This, at least, fits with both the ways in which Sister transmutes her self into an everywoman, and her ordered role as a propagandist, although it is still a rather awkward fudge.
The reason for Hall's use of the device is clear on a structural level: her interest lies in the story of Sister's time at the farm, and her moulding into a soldier, and the conceit of some transcripts being only partial allows her to give us only a snapshot of what comes later, eliding much of the conflict of the Army in the field. It is an understandable and admirable choice, making for a quieter, more focused, and rather unconventional version of the classic uprising tale. But it is also a source of some disappointment, or it was for me: I did wish that, having seen Sister and her fellow soldiers be honed for battle, that we could have seen how that training held up, or did not, away from the sheltered practice run of Carhullan. (We are told a little, but that is hardly the same.) How well did the matchless devices perform their designated tasks? We never find out.
Nonetheless, a beautifully-written novel, with stormy depths and a strong will, and an atmosphere and sense of place that have remained with me. Victoria has also reviewed it, at Strange Horizons.