Hall, Sarah (2008), The Carhullan Army, Faber and Faber
Is it worrying that a good deal of my more recent negative book reviews are negative primarily because of personal disappointment? Shouldn’t an author’s work be judged on its own merits, and not by what it could have been, might have been, should have been? But then, any competently written book might be deserving of a positive review and some, like Paul Harding’s overall mediocre and complacent little debut Tinkers (my review here), just don’t deserve that. It is the author’s fault if they don’t work through their ideas and tangents in more than a glancing way. Recently, critics like Lee Siegel have excoriated the contemporary novel, and while they were wrong-headed in their specific arguments, I think that the stark air of complacency that envelops much of MFA-produced prose contributed to Siegel’s ire. Today’s writers have an incredibly large array of themes and styles at their finger tips. They can emulate effective modes of writing with astonishing ease, hint at political or philosophical depths without ever having to deal with them in a thorough way. Books like Joshua Cohen’s most recent novel Witz, which go beyond simple pyrotechnics to create prose of significance that is both technically dazzling as it is intellectually and emotionally rich, have become increasingly rare. Critics should, I think, point this out, and shun books that are content to explore the byways of MFA-approved prose artistry, flirting with poetry, ditching each and every commitment. Sarah Hall’s third novel, The Carhullan Army, is both an excellent example of that kind of shallow writing and not. For me, it was a puzzling novel that was both annoying and interesting, both thoughtful and conventionally complacent. Ultimately, it is a fun book, a quick and easy read with some interesting tangents and possibilities that it never works through. A book meant and conceived to be a popular read, easy on the brain, presenting no hurdles, innovations or critical difficulties. And yet, there’s a spark of originality in it, of careful thought. It is this spark that makes it worth reading.
Sarah Hall is a British writer and has published four novels so far. The Carhullan Army is her third, published in 2007. Its geographical and social reference are strongly British, and elements, like the title, appeal predominantly to a British reading public, which is why the title was changed upon publication in the US, where it was published as Daughters of the North (hence the double title of the review). The US title is more emotive, more simply evocative of certain gender-based dichotomies; it also serves to situate the novel firmly in a literary tradition both of writing about the North, which is often symbolic of untamed, bristling natural landscapes (cf. Margaret Atwood’s seminal critical texts, especially Strange Things), and of writing about femininity in a patriarchally structured society, the word, or term ‘daughter’ set to evoke both the more benign term ‘mother’ and the fatherly power structure that the daughter inherits. Readers will have no problem pulling up these kinds of references in order to contextualize the book. The title stresses the book’s most simple and cheap elements, which are also those that inordinately dominate the novel’s discourse. Thus, it fits the book far better than the more complex original title which deserved a more reasoned and complex book. But then, it is indeed significant to state that the book’s wild North isn’t the allegorical landscape of Atwood’s more recent fictions. Sarah Hall sets her novel in a precisely defined region of northern England, Cumbria. The names of cities, rivers and towns either correspond exactly to existing cities, rivers and towns, or resemble them strongly. The invented town of Rith has a mirror in the Cumbrian town of Penrith, and both the nearby river Eden, as well as the Carhullan holdings exist under these exact names. Not a native of that remote region, wedged between the bulk of England, and the adjacent Welsh and Scottish countries, I gather that some travel routes and small geographic details have been changed, that there are small divergences as far as minute details are concerned, made to fit the story, but the overall principle is one of geographical accuracy.
At the same time, Hall, who herself lives in Cumbria, appears to be well aware of the mystical and allegorical potential that this region offers. She has demonstrated this awareness in her first novel, Haweswater, a sad, poetic novel about the destruction of a rural community by the invading forces of modernity. The Carhullan Army harks back to that first book, adding layers of significance, writing a tale set in the near future rather than in the past. Hall’s intent to make symbolically rich use of a landscape rich in vistas, resources and a rugged history is announced by the most central name-change. Penrith which means “Red Hill” or rather, “Hill Red”, is shortened to just “Rith”, i.e. red. As we infer from the rest of the book, Hall connects that color both to the Christian tradition of martyrdom (which, especially in Catholic traditions, is signified by the color red) and to the sense of guilt and accusation that literary forebears like Nathaniel Hawthorne made use of in creations like the eponymous scarlet letter. This, in relation to the biblical place Eden (via the Cumbrian river of the same name), allows the book’s readers to connect what seems like a simple, sparse, somewhat post-apocalyptic tale of rebellion to a broadly Christian context of storytelling where women as adulteresses, temptresses and wily sneaks have traditionally been handed the short end of the stick. It is especially in moments of crisis that masculinity, as the necessary force of stability and order, has been privileged over an unstable brand of femininity, and The Carhullan Army starts out with just such a moment of crisis. Due to a series of crises and mishaps, the British economy has collapsed, and Britain is now ruled by a military dictatorship of sorts, The Authority (an unfortunate name, recalling comics and satires more than an actually oppressive regime).
Written in 2007, the scenario of The Carhullan Army uncomfortably recalls the events of the past two years, “the ruthlessness of banks”, the dangerous dependency on oil not because of a lack of the necessary technology but because of a lack of “the will to invest”, and the downward spiral of governmental actions, breeding resentment against foreigners, arranging for “deportations” and, lastly, establishing the haplessly named military police force. Although, in the beginning, large crowds form in protest, The Authority ultimately manages to quell public unrest, until the British hunker down and accept everything. For The Carhullan Army‘s narrator who goes by the name Sister (not her real name, but the one she eventually adopts. In the first chapter, she declares “You will call me Sister”), its different. As a woman she’s suffers more from the new laws, and develops a growing unease with the status quo, until a deeply humiliating and invasive mandated procedure, meant to keep women from conceiving children, a wire contraption inserted into their uteri, pushes her over the edge. Suddenly, without any warning, she drops everything and leaves in order to join Carhullan. In Sarah Hall’s future Britain, Carhullan has become, even before the geopolitical crisis really took hold, a female autonomous community of some 60 women, a refuge for those persecuted and discriminated against, a rough-and-tumble community of women who live off the land, completely independent of governmental facilities and structures. Water, power and food are all produced on the lands of the Carhullan farm. Although no men live in Carhullan, the farm has not become some hot exotic lesbian fantasy world or a prim world of celibate gardeners. Granted, many of its inhabitants do live in same-sex relationships, but several others frequent nearby farms, striking up emotional and sexual relationships with Cumbrian men. Men may not be allowed on the farm, but the Carhullan ideology is not misandric, it doesn’t try to expunge male influence or anything. Instead, the point is to create a safe haven for women, to provide an opportunity for them to have a choice whether they want to seek out the male gaze or not, whether they want to play gender-fantasy roles or not, empowering women by taking them out of the patriarchal system (in several different ways).
In a string of extremely competently written flashbacks and straightforward storytelling, we are apprised not only of Sister’s personal history before coming to Carhullan, but also of her stay at the farm, of her discovery of its structures and inhabitants, of her amorous relationship to one of the women. It is a story of self-discovery, with all the yawn-inducing conventional cliché scenes and images one would expect. The Carhullan Army contains a few sex scenes, which are almost all of them risible and cheesy instead of erotic and involving. The same applies to the book’s depictions of Carhullan’s revolutionary leader and her ideology. It is as if Hall decided that all the worst implications about femininity and the images and contexts of it in male-dominated prose were all correct and worth emulating and reproducing. The embrace of cheap clingy stereotype is the single worst part of the book and I can personally understand every reader who broke off reading the book after the first or second of these scenes, although it is certainly worth persevering. There is only one (albeit central and important) difference to established discourse. Unlike some who foster a deeply sexist discourse that would have women as benign beings, intrinsically incapable of violence, a discourse that tends to posit a fantasy matriarchy, based on shoddy anthropology and archeology, as a pacifist, peaceful kind of reign, Sarah Hall has none of that and for that at least, she is to be commended. The Carhullan inhabitants are not averse to violence, and the Carhullan leader, a former soldier, harbors dreams of setting up a revolutionary army of women. The Carhullan Army firmly and clearly shows that this is not due to male influence or patriarchal society around them. In fact, in many ways, it seems to extol violence as a means of retaliating against an oppressive, nocent society, one that brands them with a scarlet letter and that invests its Christian creation myths with a foundational female misdemeanor. And even if you turn out to disagree with my reading, the novel’s ambiguous treatment of revolution and communities is closer to Hari Kunzru’s most recent novel or Heiner Müller’s tantalizing plays, than to essentially reactionary books like Dana Spiotta’s competent but noncommittal 2006 novel Eat The Document. (my review here).
Thus, the book’s ideas and story have both good parts and shortcomings. Where Hall really lets down the reader is the book’s narrative and formal structure, which is written in the most tired, conventional way possible, although Hall is clever enough to suggest otherwise, suggestions that eventually add up to a huge feeling of disappointment. The writing and artistic vision is tame, making me think of a crossing of the work of a clever essayist and a mediocre if competent novelist. The book consists of seven chapters, each of which is called “File”, and each of which carries either the comment “Full recovery” or “Partial recovery”. A prefatory note states that the book to come is the
English Authority Penal 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 Prevention (Unrestricted Powers) Act.
It would, I gather, be fair to assume that what follows is in some way a transcript of a spoken statement, and would follow, in diction and form, the exigencies of that situation. Really, one would hope or assume that the novelistic parts of the book would reflect the odd nature of the book in some way at the very least, but it never really does. Except for the first and last paragraph of the book, the situation that Sister is in never penetrates the sleek surface of the narrative. There is no sign that anything in the book was actually spoken by a person, and even for a written statement, it is weirdly calm and measured. It is impossible to overemphasize how utterly unremarkable, dull and conventional Sister’s narration is. As if she was writing a humorless version of a 19th century novel, we perambulate through the story, with flashbacks and commentary shedding the necessary light on every detail and every scene. The writing is simple, with small streaks of poetic prose. Given the far richer prose of her previous novels, I gather Hall has tried to simplify her style to fit the occasion, but the result is merely a tad less florid. It’s still smooth and warm, easy on the eyes and brain. A book you can read on the beach, on a train or during a dull world cup game.
Even the ‘partially recovered’ chapters turn out to be a trick without real narrative consequences. Flashbacks help fill in all the necessary gaps, and what we don’t know, we don’t want or care to know. The effect is disappointing, yes, and deeply puzzling: why would the writer hint at complexities she clearly has never really attempted to include in the book? It’s false advertising, that’s what it is, and what’s more, it fits the general air of undisturbed cliché scenery. For every interesting idea there are five ideas and scenes that reproduce ideas and scenes we all know, ideas and scenes that barely manage to coalesce into creating any kind of interest in the book’s developments for its readers. There are riches hidden in these connections, but Hall never really avails herself of the cultural vocabulary to make us of all of that. For the reader, it’s a bit frustrating to see these ideas taken up only to be discarded lazily a few pages later. It’s like reading a writer whose heart’s not in the story she tells. This is why I found the American title Daughters of the North more fitting: it is simpler, and the meaning of it is apparent and obvious. The original title The Carhullan Army is more complex: see, Carhullan is a farm, and until the last fourth of the book, its inhabitants do not have an army in the literal sense. However, the aspect of violence I mentioned, the revolutionary and vengeful motivations of its inhabitants, most of which have already committed a violent crime to avenge behavior that was harmful to them, this makes the Carhullans an army even before they ever decide to become one. Women who come to Carhullan have to understand that their earlier, submissive behavior was part of the abuse, to quote Sister:
I began to understand that I owned the abuse. I was the only persecutor.
This is fascinating, interesting, and thoroughly out of character for the book as a whole. But clearly, it would not have needed to be, and yet the timid allusions to contemporary politics, the lack either of a thorough indictment of the things that are, or of an original, powerful vision of the things that could be, this pushes novels like The Carhullan Army into near irrelevance and opens up the possibility of attacks like Siegel’s. It is a good read, but would the world have been poorer had it not been written? I don’t know.
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