I’ve now read all three of Hall’s novels, and although this, her first SF work, seems to me the weakest of them there’s no doubt that she is a prodigiously gifted and genuine novelist. I shall certainly read her next novel; and may even buy it in hardback, which is my actual cool-aid acid-test of a writer worth taking seriously. What is particularly markworthy about her writing, I’d say, is the focus and poetic intensity of her style: she tells straightforward but solid stories in a solidly rendered landscape, evoking both with a fine expressive excess. She is especially good at descriptions of nature, scenery and rural life. The Carhullan Army reworks some of the material from her first novel, the drowned-pastoral Haweswater (2002), relocating its clash of modern and traditional, town and country, male and female from the 1930s into the near-future.
Hall’s narrator (‘Sister’ is the only name she gives us) runs away from her grim factory job and unsatisfying relationship in the town to make a new life at Carhullan, a farm in the Cumbrian hills that is both a radical female collective and a seedbed for resistance to the centralized evils of the State. Carhullan is run by the charismatic, slightly insane ex-commando Jackie Nixon. Over the course of this relatively short novel Sister becomes in effect a terrorist, a member of the titular army. The book opens with an official epigraph: ‘English Authority System archive—record no 498: Transcript recovered from site of Lancaster holding dock. Statement of female prisoner detained under section 4(b) of the Insurgency Preventing (Unrestricted Powers) Act.’ So we know how the story is going to end; but we’d know that anyway from the unvaryingly doleful tone of the whole.
The Carhullan Army is a markedly, almost stubbornly old-fashioned dystopia that plays its premise entirely straight: there’s no irony, no intertextual self-knowledge in the foresquare representation of how hard life in this imagined world necessarily is. Hall plays no games with the genuineness or essential reliability of her first-person narrator. In many ways it's a strange work. That’s not intended dismissively, by the way. I like strange, and to a degree I liked this novel: I liked its single-mindedness, and its moral seriousness. I liked the way it construes both the strengths and weaknesses, or rather the freedoms and the limitations, of its rural gynocracy. I liked its attentiveness to the natural world, something too rarely found in novels, and in sf novels found more rarely still. But there have been a number of exceptional, powerful and enduring literary dystopias recently: Atwood's Oryx and Crake, Jim Crace's Pesthouse, McCarthy's The Road. The Carhullan Army is by no means a bad novel, but it isn’t in the same class as these others; and being published as it is in the wash made by their passage it can hardly help seeming a little belated.
More, its single-mindedness comes to seem tiresome before the end. It is relentless and rather spiritless, a book whose watchwords are seriousness and honesty, immanent qualities of the writing that are also deictically displayed (Jackie Nixon ‘did not try to describe Carhullan as any kind of Utopia ; ‘it was a serious and honest existence at the farm’ ) but which are perhaps too worthy to work as organising principles for this fiction.
Hall’s dystopian England, despite the role Global Warming has evidently played in its creation, could have been written in the 1960s. Life is sliding towards a miserable subsistence level under a Soviet-style tyrannous ‘Authority’; a regime that deploys ‘ten year recovery plans’, runs ‘detention centres’, nationalizes land ownership and pursues what one character calls ‘all that centralization nonsense’ . It's a crude-enough caricature of Bad Government: a straw dictatorship against which Hall’s odd combination of radical rural conservatism and radical 1970s feminism can offset itself. So on the one hand there’s a Dave Spart feel to much of the rhetoric (‘‘Women were treated like cunts back down there. Like second-class citizens and sex-objects. They were underpaid and underappreciated’ ) and a shall-we-say lack of nuance to the book’s ideological bias:
She [Nixon] 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 version of our sex. That women not be treated like cunts, sex-objects and second-class citizens is something on which we can all agree. But threading through these mainstream opinions (offered as if revolutionary) is a much more dubious essentialism and a celebration of dogged passivity associated with the enduring if dour landscape Hall loves. Towards the end of the novel we are told: ‘it is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most that will conquer’ —one of the most monstrously wrongheaded things I have read in a novel for a long time. And then there’s this romanticized, slightly sap-headed peroration, right near the end of the book:
Revolutions always begin in mountainous regions. It’s the fate of such places. Look around you … these are the disputed lands. They have never been settled. And those of us who live in them have never surrendered to anyone’s control. Nor will we ever. [195-6]Revolutions always begin in mountainous regions? That would be news to Wat Tyler, Cromwell, George Washington, Robespierre, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh—wait up. Actually, let's rephrase: ‘Revolutions rarely begin in mountainous regions’. Or indeed: ‘I’m Cumbrian and I don’t like people telling me what to do.’ That would be less starry-eyed and less grimly self-romanticising. ‘We have never surrendered to anyone’s control. Nor will we ever’. Grand. Although, didn’t Hadrian build a big fuck-you wall right through the middle of Cumbria? Ach, I’m nitpicking … except I’m not, really: this is a novel that needs to build more than a series of minute poetic observations of landscape. It needs to understand how politics actually work; how history actually moves; how tyranny actualizes itself in the world. It doesn’t. 1970s Feminism taught us that the personal is political; but this novel can only encompass the first, and not the second, half of the equivalence.
But the biggest disappointment in the novel, I’d say, is the quality of the writing itself. Both Hall’s previous novels contain numerous passages of superb, luminous writing. In The Carhullan Army the writing seemed to me simply less controlled, less effective. In part this has to do with a tendency to infodump (‘we seemed united by our disappointment, our anger, our distrust of the reinvented Forward Party, who had taken office under the banner of reform, and had then signed the Coalition Oil Treaty … [led by] Powell, one of the old guard … a bigot’ etc etc [24-5]) ‘This was not England, everyone said. This was some nightmarish version that we would wake from soon. The overdose and suicide rates climbed’ . This is not Writing, everyone can agree. This is telling rather than showing. The reader's engagement falls away.
But there’s also a kind of wobble in the texture of the writing itself, from sentence to sentence, that struck me as off-form for a stylist as gifted as Hall has shown herself to be. To be clear: this novel is better written, and Hall a much better stylist, than any other writer on Clarke 08, and better written than most other novels I read this year. But although she is often evocative and poetic (‘the November sky was ash-blue and the clouds moved fast above us’ ), often grimly so (‘the white smear of moon, a ridged and filmy ulcer in the lining of cloud’ ), or very good on minute observation: felled by the Carhullan guards, Sister sees wildlife in amongst the grass: ‘an inch from my eye a spider was belaying down one of the stems on a pale rope. Its legs pedaled precisely on the descent’ . There is a good deal of excellent writing like that. But just as often she misfires. ‘The man had a red face like a daub of glass taken out of a furnace’  (what—featureless? luminous? hot?). ‘The fell was covered with stiff gingery grass and droves of heather’  (gingery? droves?). ‘Above us the sky was charcoal-coloured and disturbed, the clouds swirling in vortexes, ripping along their edges’  … ‘vortices’, presumably; and don’t you think this description comes over like a special effect from The Philadelphia Experiment? And here is the narrator approaching the rectangular-windowed Carhullan farmhouse at night for the first time, seeing ‘a dozen soft lights, loose glowing ovals like egg yolks’ . Um?
A half-hewn novel. A plainsong novel. Not without moments of harsh beauty, but incomplete, unfinished, not quite earning its outrage, not quite fulfilling its contract with the reader.