Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Carhullan Army - Sarah Hall

'My name is Sister. This is the name that was given to me three years ago. It is what the others called me. It is what I call myself. Before that, my name was unimportant. I can't remember it being used. I will not answer to it now, or hear myself say it out loud. I will not sign to acknowledge it. It is gone. You will call me Sister. I was the last woman to go looking for Carhullan.'
As a result of terrible floods and a desperate energy crisis, an authoritarian government known as the 'Authority' has taken over Britain. People have been herded into the towns and cities where life is grim. Living conditions are cramped, there's no fresh food and women have enforced contraception. The only hope of having a child is winning the 'baby lottery'.
'The conditions were hard on all of us. Life changed in every way and it was difficult to adjust. There was despondency and resentment, food shortages, humiliations. Any small feeling of bliss, any cheap narcotic substance available to mask the difficulty, to make people forget what they once had, was easily sold.  In the poorest quarters people took low-grade drugs, ketamine, and hits of silverflex, which rotted their jaws. They passed syphilis among themselves and the clinics cut out tumours from the genitals of those who abused the animal tranquillisers for too long. There was almost  no money, and what little there was seemed meaningless. People traded with their bodies, their possessions, they signed up for futurised loans.'
Sister can bear the repression no longer and flees the town for Carhullan, deep in the Cumbrian hills. Carhullan is home to a community of women who live outside the law and survive by farming the land. The community is run by the charismatic, but fanatical Jackie Nixon:
'There was a fierceness about her, something amplified and internalised, an energy that my father would have described as Northern brio. 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.'
Sister must find a way to become accepted by the women and make a new life for herself. However, she discovers that life at Carhullan is far from idyllic. She has a relationship with one of the other women, but this pleasure is shortlived. Jackie challenges Sister to show just how far she's prepared to go to preserve her new-found freedom.

This is an uncompromising book, with a strong political message. Yet there is humanity and tenderness too, and a richness of language that deserves to be admired.


  1. Perhaps thirty years ago there was a spate of books for young adults which tackled the same sort of subject as this, although I would imagine, not having read the Hall, that they were less precise about some of the details. They were, however, books that really stopped you in your tracks and made you think about both the world you took for granted and the political idealism of those who would change it. Hall is a writer I have had on my radar for some time, but I've now added her to my library list. This sounds very interesting indeed and a possible book for one of my book groups.

  2. This isn't the type of book I'd normally read, but I was drawn to it because I like the author.

    Certainly it would stimulate debate as a book group read. The group would have to be fairly open-minded as it is quite explicit in parts. I'm not sure what my book group would make of it!


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