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The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall

01/11/2009. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy The Carhullan Army in the USA - or Buy The Carhullan Army in the UK

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pub: Faber and Faber. 205 page hardback. Price: 14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-571-23659-6.

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This is one of the books short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Award 2007. It was published as a mainstream novel so may not have come to the attention of SF readers who make their choices from the shelves marked Science Fiction.

The setting is near future - within about twenty years of now - and largely on the fells of the Lake District. Although it is not made particularly clear, England has got into dire straits due to global warming and rising sea levels. (It does rain a lot during the course of the novel.) Due to crop failures, the population has been herded out of the countryside into towns and cities where they are allocated jobs and food rations. The goods made in the factories are stockpiled and the food is mostly handouts from America. Women are repressed. They have to apply to reproduce and are fitted with contraceptives which can be inspected at any time by the authorities.

The main character is known only as Sister. This is her confession recorded as computer files after the end of the action recorded in the novel. Sister becomes disenchanted with her situation and decides to escape. When she was younger, she heard about a female commune in the fells at a farm called Carhullan. She is convinced that is she can escape from the town she is quartered in and will be able to join the commune. As her passport, she takes her father's old gun and ammunition for it. Although she finds the farm, her reception is not quite what she expected.

The framing SF scenario is not particularly original, reminiscent of many earlier dystopias and feminist novels. The strength of it though lies in the way that Sister is treated and integrated into Carhullan's community. The writing here is extremely powerful. Jackie Nixon, the leader of the community, obviously needs to be absolutely sure of the resolution of the people she accepts, She does not want to find she has anyone who will not pull their weight or go running back to the authorities with information about strengths and weaknesses. She runs the place along military lines. The treatment meted out to Sister on her arrival is tantamount to torture and it is described graphically. Only a dedicated and determined recruit would survive.

The prose is spare and relatively emotionless, as befits the confessional style of the novel. While some readers will take against the framework as being familiar and others will feel that the treatment of Sister is sadistic and gratuitous, this is also an example of a literary SF novel and deserving of attention.

Pauline Morgan

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