The Carhullan Army

By Sarah Hall. Published in the UK in 2007. (Published in the United States in 2008 under the title Daughters of the North, but that’s a meaningless, generic title, and I’d rather not use it.)

The dramatic arc of The Carhullan Army is a fascinating one. At first it seems that author Sarah Hall is telling the story of a resistance movement—an uprising that will climax in either triumph or failure—but in fact, her focus is much sharper and more provocative. The Carhullan Army is not a story of resistance but of re-creation, a story of why and how a cowed civilian might rebuild herself as a hardened soldier.

Hall doesn’t romanticize. Her protagonist’s journey is riveting but deeply unsettling, marked by characters who don’t slip easily into categories of “good” and “bad” and who follow a course that may or may not be for the best. With such dark shades of gray on its canvas, the novel might have been horribly depressing (and some might argue that is still is) were it not so vividly, fearlessly, brutally alive.

The premise is sort of the reverse of The Handmaid’s Tale: Environmental catastrophes and endless wars have decimated Britain, and the Authority has taken over, herding the surviving populace into tightly controlled cities, where women’s fertility, among other things, can be regulated. Every woman of childbearing age is fitted with a metal birth control device in her uterus and subject to spot checks on the street to ensure the coil is still in place. (The right to bear children is granted only to a select, lucky few.) The coil is hardly the protagonist’s only objection to the Authority, but it is, perhaps, what finally pushes her to flee the city of Rith and seek out Carhullan, a remote women’s commune founded in the mountains of Cumbria several years before the Authority rose to power.

“Sister,” as she is known to us, tells her story from prison sometime after Carhullan has fomented an insurrection against the Authority, but the details of the insurrection itself have been lost. In any case, Sister is not a leader (at least not at the commune) but a follower, a disciple of Jackie, the veteran soldier who cofounded Carhullan as a self-sufficient farm and who eventually reconstructs it as a guerilla training camp. A remote, enigmatic figure, Jackie reveals little—and then only with shrewd political care—but we can see why Sister finds her so compelling. Jackie’s resilience is admirable, her fears well-founded, and her goals righteous, which is why her violent means of chasing those ends are both stirring and dismaying.

As one would expect from the charged premise and the commune setting, The Carhullan Army explores the broader implications of reproductive rights and the social construction of femininity, but Hall moves past the obvious points. The novel’s examination of the human tendency to define ourselves by what we are not, by excluding “others,” is terribly biting, and the environmental apocalypse it portrays feel painfully relevant, but what really captures my attention is Hall’s perceptive, empathic, even-handed portrait of fanaticism. Carhullan avoids flip “one man’s freedom fighter…” oversimplifications in favor of something much more challenging and interesting, from a philosophical standpoint as well as a narrative one.

The narrative itself is absorbing. Hall has a wonderful sense of language, the ability to create rich descriptive passages with a stark, unpretty beauty. She herself grew up in Cumbria, and her obvious firsthand experiences with the land, the rains, and the winter chill give Carhullan a powerful sense of place. It is to her credit (and not, I fear, to our troubled world’s) that that place never feels too far away.