England is in a state of environmental and economic crisis. Under the repressive regime of The Authority, citizens have been herded into urban centres, and all women of child-bearing age fitted with contraceptive devices. A woman known as ‘Sister’ leaves her oppressive marriage to join an isolated group of women in a remote northern farm at Carhullan, where she intends to become a rebel fighter. But can she follow their notion of freedom and what it means to fight for it?
Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army is a novel that presents the reader with a bleak vision of a future England, but one with overarching feminist themes. Following economic collapse, the population has been corralled into the cities of old under the guise of Civil Reorganisation although it seems to me that the main benefit to the Authority is to have the population in a defined and manageable area. Jobs are assigned, and women are fitted with a contraceptive device and a lottery is used to decide who can bear children in order to control population numbers and support rationing. It’s a bleak vision, and as is so often the case, women are impacted far more than the men by the Authority’s policies.
The first section of the novel introduces the reader to Sister – we never learn her name – a woman living in Rith (which I believe to be Penrith) who decides to leave. She plans her escape meticulously, but even so, she’s reliant upon a degree of luck to escape the confines of the city after which she will be unable to return. She is leaving not only society, but also her husband from whom she has grown apart. When the changes first came about, they were aligned in their views, and yet he has come to accept the status quo – something for which she can’t forgive him. And he does come across as arrogant and selfish, overlooking her concerns and the impact the regime has on her life simply because it doesn’t affect him directly. The reader can fully understand her desire to get away from everything, hard though it might be.
Her plan is to join a group of rebel women living independently in what was once the Lake District – a group that has always fascinated her even before their rejection of the Authority, and a group that perhaps holds a degree of infatuation for her. To say that her arrival doesn’t go entirely as expected is putting it mildly, but after a shaky start she settles in and knuckles down, forming friendships and adapting to a hard pastoral lifestyle that, despite its difficulties, is nonetheless more fulfilling than the life she left behind in the way that self-sufficiency often is.
The Carhullan Army, as the group is known, is led by Jackie (Jacks) Nixon who has few rules but who ensures that those rules are adhered to. Like most leaders, she’s a strong and charismatic individual, and there’s an element of cultish fervour in some of her followers, although their group is never referred to as such. She’s a “take me as you find me” individual who can always be relied upon to speak her mind. Her military background makes her ideally suited to the looking after a rebel group that has been branded as terrorists by the Authority. As the novel progresses and group’s goals begin to change, it’s difficult to know whether it’s a result of her idealism or whether there’s a genuine threat to be countered as Jacks claims.
We meet many of the women living in the commune – if that’s the right term – but few are fully fleshed out, and many are only names on the page. This does mean that there are few characters to really engage with beyond Sister and Jacks and a few others that become key to the novel. Nor is it a novel with twists and turns and action. The majority of the novel takes place at a remote homestead that they’ve made their own, and it’s not until the end of the novel that things come to a head. Even then, much of the action happens off page, although we’re told enough to understand what happens and why. This does make the ending feel a little rushed – there’s the build up to the finale, which is then largely glossed over. I didn’t mind this – it works well within the structure that Hall has used to share Sister’s narrative (which I won’t go into!) but I found the lead up to be thoroughly engaging.
The Carhullan Army presents a bleak dystopian vision of an England run by a police-like authoritarian regime, and while it may sound as though it’s all doom and gloom, I think that there is an element of hope in the narrative as well. It’s a novel that encourages people to stand up for what they believe in, and for many reasons felt quite timely. It always feels a bit odd to say that I enjoyed a novel that I’ve described as bleak, but I did, as I so often do. Recommended for those who enjoy dystopian fiction with a strong feminist element.