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Sisters in Arms

By (April 1, 2008) No Comment

Daughters of the North

By Sarah Hall
HarperCollins, 2008

It is presumptuous for a reader to tell a writer that she should limit herself to certain material because it inspires her best work. Not only would that be too restrictive, most readers of fiction, if they trust a writer’s talent, wish for her to be ambitious, to challenge herself and her audience, even if the final outcome is not wholly successful. Nevertheless, I shall tell Sarah Hall what she should avoid: tattoos, carnival freaks, and possibly the sea.

The Electric Michelangelo, her Booker-shortlisted second novel, is about a young English lad who grew up by Morecambe Bay and became a tattoo artist, a job that inevitably brought him into contact with tattoos with mental and physical freaks of all sorts. What little potential there was for an extravagant revel was asphyxiated under her earnest, metaphor-riddled, purple prose. Hall could not describe a beach without it being a “mud beach stretching out for the spectators to take to like the apron of a stage”; boys’ sexual fantasies had to “[stir up] a new ingredient up in them, like batter which would thereafter coat every desirable women for the rest of their lives”; and no minor intimate interaction between characters could occur without a ponderous, overwrought note entering the proceedings.

On the other hand, her first novel Haweswater is one of the rare books that lives up to (most) of the blurbs that shout from its front and backside: it is an impressive debut and marked her an upcoming writer to watch (although to describe it as “show-stopping genius,” as someone from The Guardian does, might be a bit much). Haweswater is set in the fells of Cumbria, a rural north England county, and depicts a tiny, agrarian community out-of-sync with the rest of a country that had lost the ability to view such green space as anything but a tourist destination, a relaxation aide. The locals’ dependence on the rocky terrain, their vulnerability to the elements, and their overall hardy existence have a restraining effect on Hall’s sentences. Her love of this part of rural England where she was born is still evident, but it’s here diffused into something less ostentatious; unlike the unchecked adolescent enthusiasm of The Electric Michelangelo, Haweswater is measured, graceful, and unsentimental. The images she conjures enhance rather than obscure her subjects and their decline. Reviewers likened her to Hardy for her elevation of natural setting into its own character.

All the major characters in her novels are to varying degrees outsiders. For significant periods of time the community they were born into accepts them but not without a murmur or a cocked eyebrow, for each character has a distinct quality that sets him or her at loggerheads with the traditions of the small village. In Haweswater, old townsmen grumble and wonder aloud about a women’s place when young Janet Lightburn consults lawyers and tries to round up local sentiment in reaction to a water company’s plan to build a dam on their leased land. In The Electric Michelangelo, it’s Cy’s occupation that immediately consigns him to society’s edge along with the drunks, prostitutes, and sailors. It is only the would-be pariah’s family that offers unconditional support. In Morecambe Bay, down by the sea, Hall builds this pattern to a mild, comforting conclusion, despite earlier grievous events (many of which evoked both sadness and amusement because of their overwrought quality).

In Hall’s newest novel Daughters of the North (the dumb-downed American title of The Carhullan Army, as the book is called in the UK), set again in Cumbria, this pattern is etched even deeper: the community is more confining and conformist, pushing her protagonist to an extreme disruption from and attempted destruction of the society. Hall leaves the early 20th century of her past novels to a not-too-distant dystopian twenty-first century future; and she leaves as well the Hardy-like omniscient third person narrator for the closer mental quarter of a narrator who calls herself “Sister” and will respond to no other name. The novel is split into seven files of complete or corrupted extracts from Sister’s electronic diary. Though the view is more corseted, do not expect this account to be intimate or evoke the titillating thrill of gaining access to a private document. Sister wrote of her life for public record in obedience to her commander’s orders. She is an imprisoned soldier once a part of a government labelled terrorist organization. (In the book’s time line her testimony has already been written and we do not know how much time has passed since she wrote or whether it is a hostile or friendly government who has retrieved it.)

Global warming, the collapse of the oil market, and stressful overseas wars have crippled Britain’s government and the country is now little more than an American colony. Its king is overseas fighting in one of the wars. The proxy government, in order to deal with the current crisis, institutes a “ten year recovery plan,” which requires Britain to militarize the police force and establish strict authoritarian laws that ban vehicles for the general populace, abandon alternate energy resources for severely rationed “New Oil” electricity, and require citizens to live together in grim, rundown apartment buildings stocked with the bare necessities including canned food imported from the US, packaged with cheery Christian platitudes reminding the eater of the two countries’ special relationship. In “File One,” Sister is about to execute a dawn escape and relays all information about the current mayhem and details leading up to it as she travels to a refuge called Carhullan that operates according to its own rules rather than those of the government’s police force, simply called “the Authority.”

Although this is a political novel, Hall does not write much on the authoritarian government’s structure and operation or include any characters from the government or the Authority. Sister writes that none of those details reach the public any longer, that the entire system is “opaque” to them, and so it is for the reader. Through Sister we perceive the rulers as an impregnable, oppressive force that clouds the peoples’ daily lives as mindless factory workers – schools and other such public institutions no longer seem to exist – and who can invade their privacy at any moment. To control population growth doctors insert strange birth control devices at least partly made of wire into all females once they’re able to reproduce (and even if they can’t); the newest versions are most easily visible, allowing Authority police to stop a woman and inspect her in the back of a cruiser to ensure that the device has not been tampered with. Non-British readers should note the obsolescence of the king, for many British view the monarchy as an important check on governmental power should any ruling political party feel inclined to micromanage citizens’ lives.

But to think of the novel as an allegory about the future of Britain would be to obscure its peculiarly provincial interests and influences. For all the government’s hovering presence in the first chapter, Hall leaves its urban jurisdiction to focus on Carhullan, a tiny, self-governing community in the fells that predated the Authority’s existence. With the introduction of Carhullan, Hall shows that she is concerned not with redefining what Britannia is and should be but with portraying people who have rejected monolithic ideals in favor of smaller, distinctive, rural communities. In homage to the former Cumbrian resident William Wordsworth, a reverence of nature is reflected in Hall’s themes and diction; likewise her characters’ speech conveys the regions identity and history. In Haweswater, characters speak a rich local dialect, and in Daughters of the North, Hall makes judicious use of words like “bield”, “bothies” and “poddish,” words more commonly used in Britain’s Celtic regions – northern England, Scotland, and Wales – as well as Ireland. Carhullan’s rebellious stance, not only against the Authority but against the majority’s social and political mores, recalls the Britons violent resistance to Anglo-Saxon invasion. The Quaker movement started in Pardshaw, Cumbria, as its founder, George Fox, and his followers became dissatisfied with Cromwell’s Puritanism, and they suffered much before they were allowed the freedom to worship and be recognized as full British citizens. Even the Carhullan leader’s surname, Nixon, is identified as one belonging to a long line of border reivers “who went out with bulldogs” to meet the enemy (although American readers will inevitably find a different allusion in the name).

Carhullan is a small all-female agrarian society, comprised of 60-plus women, situated high up in the fells in or around Lake District, run by a gifted, ex-military Cambridge graduate named Jackie Nixon. Here, too, is a reversal to much older ways. The group is entirely self-sufficient, living off whatever animals they can hunt and rear, and produce they can cultivate, a form of farming recognized as one of the hardest due to the high altitude and terrain. The farm is run on hydroelectric power generated by a waterwheel. The rejection of almost every modern convenience fosters a centuries old lifestyle the women’s bodies reflect, not only in the diseases they must be diligent in hygiene to avoid, but in their appearance. The tattoos, the wiry bodies, the sun bleached, toughened skin, the pared back flesh all point to a life that sculpts the body to a form not seen in the modern West.

Their minds are formed by ideals anathema to the modern West. Hall’s readers are accustomed to her female characters who embody certain feminist ideals that go a bit further beyond intellectual equality and financial independence. Janet Lightburn of Haweswater is Hall’s most interesting early example. Physically she is described as “handsome” rather than tea-rose pretty; her face and body an intriguing mix of the masculine as well as feminine to suit the rough sheep farming life in the Cumbria hills. She has her mother’s temper and unyielding spirit, so it is her father who is the accepting, compromising force in their household when the two women clash. When Janet falls in love with Jack Liggett, the Water Company’s project leader, she wrestles with more than the obvious conflict of joining with the enemy but with the softer vulnerability and weakening emotions of being in love.

In Daughters of the North there are no old men or women to remind the younger women what society expects of their sex. For Jackie Nixon, any notions of “femininity” are almost entirely social constructs designed to align women with the home and make them protectors not of ideals but of their young. This is the expectation she repudiates with the Carhullan experiment. Here the women fill in all the societal roles on their own – they hunt, farm, heal, clean, build, nurture, defend, or attack – without men. Not all are war-like but none are dainty and in such rough, close confines all proper female norms of behaviour are scorned: “…little was taboo, too impolitic or too rude, and they called each other terrible names, referred to their gashes and snatches, as if it was nothing to them to use such language.” Most find sexual pleasure amongst themselves.

Nor will you find the pastoral image of the quiet agrarian society, its people tidily tending to the fields with minds turn inward. Explosive violence shook Haweswater and is again manifested here in Jackie Nixon’s most extreme structure of the new woman – her Carhullan army. Nixon commands a select, voluntary group of women more brutally trained than even the “Old British Army Specials,” as one character notes, and who can tap that inner violent core recognized in this book as human rather than of special male provenance. We first see them at work when Sister nears their land and is swiftly knocked out by a 14-year-old girl who confiscates Sister’s gun and is “obviously confident with its handling and unimpressed by what she was holding.” As Sister settles into the community, others tell her that parts of the military regimen “amounted to torture, either to themselves or to the livestock. They would often come back covered in gore, carrying deer heads and pelts. They liked to parade the trophies around in front of the others.”

Hall presents women here as few (male or female) would like to see or imagine them, but she does not do so with the over-the-top, uncontrollable earnest and unsubtle moralizing of The Electric Michelangelo, where she repetitively reminded us that tattoo artists, immigrants, blacks, drunks, whores, freaks (fill in your favorite early-20th century British/American outcast here) are people too, with feelings and hopes and dreams. Now, with Hall more adept at creating consistent, plausible characters, Sister’s testimonials are written in concise prose and a nearly preternaturally unruffled tone that reflects her militarily training but is also in keeping with the quiet tenacity that kept her walking steadily, injured and undernourished, through the rain to Carhullan without complaint. Hall’s choice of having Sister record her experience in retrospect, under Nixon’s orders to tell others what they had built, ensures that Sister relates events with an assured poise that is persuasive precisely because it allows her to expose all aspects of the community, including those that fill her (and the reader) with doubts:

She 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 versions of our sex, and that her ruthlessness was adopted because those constructs were built to endure. She broke down the walls that had kept us contained. There was a fresh red field on the other side, and in its rich soil were growing all the flowers of war that history had never let us gather. It was beautiful to walk in. As beautiful as the fells that autumn.

Yet we are not fully persuaded either. Megan, the 14-year-old killing machine, is described as the “idealised” female, born and raised at Carhullan, solely under the women’s influence, intelligent, well-read, conveying an enviable inner security and unselfconscious sense of place. But the inescapable fact is that she was raised in isolation, uniquely protected from any negative influence – does this isolation render her impervious to the world’s dangers or particularly vulnerable?

If she had been created on a philosophical specimen dish then her genetic beliefs had been altered to make her more resilient and assured of herself, more companionable to her own kind. She had not been exposed to a world of inferiority or cattiness, nor male dominance…. There something gallant about her. She considered that most of the women left down in the zones were in need of her assistance. They were like slaves, she said.

After you read such scenes – scenes that comprise the bulk of novel as we witness Sister’s gradual integration into her new home – the dystopian elements seem almost incidental, wholly in service to Hall’s exploration of her feminist enclave. Contrary to the expectations raised we are not regaled with an insurgent uprising against the government with all the action, intrigue, and political declarations such a story would involve. Direct confrontation with the Authority does not occur until the last chapter. But Hall’s methodical examination of Carhullan provokes, to some extent, the same questions about totalitarianism that a more typical treatment would have raised; indeed, these questions are even more complex because they stem from a sympathetic world rather than the facelessly tyrannical Authority. Wonderfully, Hall takes the philosophical, “big canvas” themes and brings them skilfully into a smaller, domestic milieu and shows how the two are intimately linked.

How valid is the Carhullan system to readers in democratic societies? Carhullan is no utopia, although it is not the simple flipside of the repressive coin as other reviewers have asserted. The community members hold meetings in which they are allowed to discuss and vote on issues affecting them, with each given their say without interruption. Nixon rarely interferes with the proceedings. Contrary to rumours spread by abandoned male spouses or relatives, each woman joins the group voluntarily, and is free to leave, although current circumstances necessitate Nixon having a hand in resettling the woman seamlessly into mainstream society. New members are allowed to choose which society sector they’d like to work in, whether as planters, peat collectors, cooks, etc. And membership into the military is also voluntary.

However, Nixon holds the troublesome position of being both the military and the civilian leader. She holds absolute veto power in community meetings and although her decisions can technically be questioned, the women rarely do so. Crucially, one of the sisters’ longstanding problems is the existence of the military itself. It is certainly the military’s that established the rule that all newcomers are to be locked in a steel “dog box” for days without food or water, which is less the happy feminist farm Sister expected and more like the “cult” that the group’s detractors call it. On top of this, Nixon is the only one who has access to news from the outside world and when she uses the information, along with her military strength, to manipulate her constituents’ emotions, shouts comparing her to Mao do not sound as ridiculous as they should. All such “compromises” inevitably taint the project’s purity and, though I do not think Nixon is as ruthless as the Authority, she is ruthless enough to fill the reader’s mind with complex questions.

Might it be that Nixon’s ruthlessness is necessary? To effectively counteract and topple a repressive regime is an opposition forced to employ extreme tactics or should it stick to cultivating a mini-liberal democracy? How does one deduce which are the right circumstances in which one should give up certain rights? And if we do so and achieve our goals will we even want to return to a freer past? Hall, as most good novelists, does not provide comforting answers with Carhullan, and, indeed, goes even further by destabilizing the narrative, leaving gaps in readers’ knowledge.

The fifth and seventh “files” or chapters are labelled as “Partial Corruptions.” Information is missing at the beginning of both in chapters that is crucial in establishing the success of Nixon’s experiment. In the fifth we see her first, clear misuse of her military against other Carhullans in a “mock raid” after which she presents the group with an ultimatum that necessitates Carhullan’s end. The king has died in combat and the Authority is prohibiting royal succession and subsequently establishing complete jurisdiction over all the country (previously recognized as crown property) by “readministrat[ing] all the areas not under their control.” The seventh file covers the preparations for the inevitable violent offensive on the Authority in Rith, Sister’s former home, with help from the local residents.

The mock raid acts as both a defence of and a mark against Nixon’s leadership. A similarly violent abuse of power never happens again, but such ruthless characteristics increase as the book nears its conclusion. Two months pass between the mock raid and the last file, time in which life in the enclave has changed from a state of relative harmony to one of escalating tension, capped by a physical fight between two members for reasons one can only piece together from clues. What does seem likely is that Nixon used the raid to maneuver the sisters into a defensive, vulnerable position that puts them in greater threat of the Authority and precipitates Carhullan’s demise. From now on Nixon steers the community’s fate, and she steers it directly toward violent conflict: the sisters must fight or re-enter society.

But the details of how Nixon’s offensive plays out, how the sisters manage to gather the residents’ support, how they treat them and perhaps any surrendering Authority members—all such information would help the reader assess whether the group retains any balanced perspective, but all of it is elided. Did Nixon’s “bloodyminded[ness]” eclipse any sense of fairness, of mercy? Hall gives only one glimpse of a bloody scene after 53 days of battle, and some of what were, perhaps, Nixon’s last words.

Some may say that Hall’s narrative choices are a cop out. Yet what she does in her fiction is subtly call to the reader’s mind current conflicts on the world stage. How far can a society go in retracting liberties with the stated intention of preserving them? And once such liberties are withdrawn and the taint of absolute power appears, is it ever possible to remove the stain? Could the Carhullans have helped to establish by peaceful example a freer society, or were they right to sacrifice their freedoms and take up arms? Hall leaves these questions unanswered in a decision that makes Daughters of the North an especially collaborative reading experience, one that is as dependent on the make-up of the reader as on the book.

A.I. White hangs around bookstores in Waterloo, Ontario and blogs at The Books of My Numberless Dreams.