Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall (aka Daughters of the North)

After months of reading mostly B-grade pulp, it was a fantabulous change to challenging intellectual feminist literature in this novel, which had been sitting for a long time in my To-Be-Read Pile – and I would like to thank atheist woman for encouraging me to get around to reading it!  

Sarah Hall in her early 30s, is an extraordinarily talented literary author. Her previous novels have received high critical praise, including short-listing for the Booker, and her third novel the Carhullan Army won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize for best novel by a young author under 35 and the 2008 Tiptree Award.

The imagery used by Sarah Hall is steeped in the classic English literary tradition, where there is so often a thread of tragedy,  woven into the themes even in comedy works, in being able to ‘hear the rain’ in the sub-text.  Carhullan Army follows the tradition of the English Tragedy (with a capital T), and is reminiscent of other classic tragedies such as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights – particularly in her use of dark moody weather, landscape and indigenous Celtic words,  in parallel with the equally dark, tragic psychic journeys of its protagonists.   It may have been coincidental, but I think not, that most of the action on both psychic and physical planes in Carhullan Army,  takes place in the bleak and bitter winters of England’s North.   A starring role is played by the fells , becks and bields of the Cumbrian highlands.

Evocatively written in poetic prose that expresses a vivid mood and landscape – Sarah Hall manipulates readers into accompanying a woman character on a deeply personal and political Journey. Using metaphors of damaged but still beautiful landscapes violated by environmental degradation and climate change, in parallel with similar metaphors of violated, damaged, imperfect but still beautiful female life and body experience, this novel explores womanhood as the ‘human condition’.

A favourite theme in literature, the ‘human condition’ in theory, encompasses the totality of the experience of being human and living human lives.  In literary practice however, it is usually solely the male condition that is being explored, with females either absent altogether, or merely stage props for the male protagonists summarily dismissed as unimportant.  It is rare for the female half of the human condition to even be mentioned in such works.  It is refreshing to read a literary work exploring the human condition through foregrounding the Humanity of Womanhood on centre stage.

I may not agree with, or support, all of Sarah Hall’s feminist ideas or presentations (particularly of radical lesbian separatism), but a central theme of ‘Women are Human’ gets my feminist stamp of approval.  Another stamp goes to having made some literary critics uncomfortable.

Several male literary critics for example, address the generic themes of climate change, socio-political and environmental collapse, highlighting her incredible skill as a writer, particularly her use of landscape imagery – while downplaying or even ignoring the central gender themes. In some cases, nit-picking over the plausibility or not of the plot devices, or mentioning in passing, the gender theme as ‘interesting’ in its treatment of women and political violence. Using terms like powerful and ‘Disturbing, yet compelling’.  Sarah Hall in one interview mentioned that some critics appeared grudging in their praise, saying she wrote ‘landscapes very well’ and leaving it at that.

Similar to many high-profile women authors, from Sappho to Virginia Woolf, they have been forced to acknowledge her skill and talent, in spite of their potential discomfort with the subject.

Okay, so much for the literary Overview – onto the story….
WARNING: Spoilers overleaf

The entire book is told in the first person, narrated by a woman known only as ‘Sister’, with her story an archival text record recovered from the prison site where she was held, and told for her sisters’ sake.

Social and political collapse along with environmental catastrophe leaves Britain a  broken nation, under totalitarian rule by the ‘Authority’ and dependent on a fundamentalist America for food and energy. Agriculture has collapsed, people eat from tins donated by religious charity aid agencies and live crammed together in elevated urban areas where industry stutters on and people work long shifts on assembly lines.  With more nods to classic British post-apocalypse novels with urban decay themes, such as Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor ,  life for the people is fairly bleak and disease-ridden but with the addition of the regimentalism and propaganda of a totalitarian state.

Different reactions on either side of the Atlantic, in comparing this novel to others in derivative influence of its basic premise, American reviewers comparing to north-american novels like Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and Ursula Le Guin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,”  but which I personally did not see.

I saw far greater derivative influence from classic British novelists like Doris Lessing in her use of urban decay (eg Memoirs of a Survivor) and psychological decay (eg Briefing for a Descent into Hell), along with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.  I also saw George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm in the depiction of the totalitarian state and the removal of human rights, but with the twist of focus on its impact on women and the state’s invasion and violation of their bodies.

Procreation is severely regulated. Women are compulsorily fitted with contraceptive coils, permitted to have them removed only if their name is drawn in a Baby Lottery.  Sister lives in one city, silenced by the authoritarian regime and her factory job, alienated from her husband and violated by her coil. The scene of Sister being fitted by an impersonal male doctor is one example of Sarah Hall’s vivid powerful writing: “All I could think about was the doctor….inserting the speculum and attaching the device as efficiently as a farmer clipping the ear of one of his herd.”

Sister, in a last desperate hope, resolves to escape the city and its regime by setting out for Carhullan a women’s commune set up before things got bad. She remembers it from her childhood up in the remote Cumbrian highlands with a romantic fantasy vision of Shangri-La and Happy-Ever-Afters. Just getting there is dangerous enough, but what happens after she arrives is more dangerous still.

Thrown for several days into a ‘dog-box’ to psychologically break her in a form of initiation through sensory deprivation, Sister is forced to the depths of her Self. On her release and acceptance into the life of the community, we as readers accompanying her on this Journey, start to question. Who and what are we as women? What are we capable of? “Do women have it in them to fight if they need to? Or is that the province of men? Are we innately pacifist? Do we always have to submit to survive?” This interrogation is thrown at our narrator on her arrival to Carhullan and becomes a central, theme of the book.

For this is a novel about women, and womanhood, and characterisation is another strong point in the novel – the few male characters in the book play a subsidiary role – but Sarah Hall is not a proselytiser or promoting a particular ideology of gender. Her characters aren’t simply drawn as stage-props for a message, but are complex composites.

Through the character of Jackie, the charismatic ex-military leader and one of the founders of the Carhullan commune and its 60+ women and girls, Sister comes to her own conclusions, answers and choices, or does she? Sarah Hall does not provide answers, only questions, with deliberate ambiguity. We see the other characters like Jackie filtered through the eyes and thoughts of Sister in first person narrative.  Is Jackie a visionary, or an insane manipulative power-tripper?  Has she become mad from the death of her lover? Does she bend others to her will with amoral corrupt ruthlessness of a dictator, or is she a strong leader who takes the time to convince others of her vision, but takes sole responsibility for making harsh decisions, that others cannot, or will not, make? Different readers will take different thoughts from these scenes in the book.

Is Sister only succumbing to a different form of Stockholm Syndrome and abdication of Self under Jackie’s influence? Or is it that she has genuinely chosen the path of violence in the Army as being the right answer for her, while still recognising that it is not the answer for many other women?  None of the women are forced to join the Army when Jackie drops her bombshell, they are all volunteers to undergo the brutal harsh military training Jackie subjects them to.  A training regimen told by Sarah Hall in such vivid evocative detail of mood and gritty female physicality – as women readers we are on those trails with Sister and her Unit. We are inside their bodies and their minds.  Most of the other women ultimately agree to support the decision in spite of their own choice for non-participation in the violence, but again, we are left questioning – are they truly deciding for themselves or just under the influence of a mad cult leader?  The one who disagrees most, Chloe,  thinks the latter, and after attempting to escape with her husband Martyn, is killed by Jackie.

Megan,  at 14 is another interesting character, as the eldest of the second generation born and raised in the commune. A girl revolutionary at home with a rifle in her hand, and vaguely reminiscent of the child soldiers of distant conflicts in our present world. But, she is also precocious with a raw primal female sexuality, yet sweetly shy and childlike in her affections and gift-giving.

For the Army women, its for the cause of all that is good and worthwhile in Carhullan life that they are choosing their pre-emptive strike on the city. In one poignant farewell scene of the non-combatant women and children leaving Carhullan, Sister’s resolve and commitment to the cause is strengthened when watching the baby Stella crying in the departure “She was the youngest of them, the last daughter of Carhullan, and she was being given up for adoption, given over to a world which would not love her, as she had been loved here.”

Other womanhood themes include sexuality. Sister’s attitudes towards it change and grow as she herself changes and develops. The first flush of youthful straight sex with her boyfriend at college, gives way to dissociation and silenced rage in the controlled, post-marriage, post apocalyptic world of The Authority. Lesbianism is fulfilling and holistic and joyful in the commune of Carhullan as described in her loving relationship with Shruti. And when Sister goes back to sex with men as she trains for war, sex becomes little more than an angry and brutal need.

Nonetheless, the novels’ depiction of sexuality in the commune was my main quibble and disappointment with the novel. Sarah Hall’s depiction of lesbian sexuality, and particularly the sexualised speech and behaviour in the commune is often highly unrealistic and jarring, based on some of the worst cultural stereotypes and myths about lesbians.  It was often seriously out of character and antithetical to radical lesbian feminism.  I can only assume that Sarah Hall has little personal knowledge of lesbian feminists, making the flaw strikingly obvious to me whereas it may not be to the general reading public.

Also, I didn’t see the point of the army to be terrorists, but to make a statement – to make the sacrifice. Give me Liberty, or Give Me Death.   The purpose of the ‘Last Stand’ of the Carhullan Army at the end wasn’t to win. It was to spark the silent objecters and apathetic masses into civil disobedience, through forcing the use of massive overwhelming military force to crush a small bunch of women.  Civilians were inspired by it, and engaged in riots too.

They did well, holding the city for 53 days, and wiping out most of military targets and central records facilities before going down.  An epic war-story, but is that only valid and credible – when its told about men?

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2 thoughts on “Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall (aka Daughters of the North)

  1. Hey Rain :-). Yes, her description of the women came off as sexually promiscuous and catty, which rang quite false for me.

    • *nodding* It leapt out at me quite jarringly, as being out of synch with the rest of the novel too, so was willing to see it as ignorance, or internalised/subconscious, rather than deliberate.

      I had other minor quibbles, but the depiction of lesbian sexuality was the biggest flaw for me, and why I dont see the book as radical feminist – but the broader generic feminist ideas that she does explore in depth, eg the body, the humanity, gender roles etc, are still valuable despite that flaw.

      Its also the one point that I have not seen raised in interviews with Sarah Hall (no surprise!):
      lunecyreview and bookgroup interview

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