Daughter's of the North by Sarah Hall

I love the women of Sarah Hall's Carhullan Army (a.k.a. Daughters of the North) the"North" being the Northern Highlands of England. These rawboned, muscles honed (but not quite Amazon-like) ladies live off the land like modern day Pocahontases, assuming Pocahontas had a diesel-fueled Jeep, automatic rifle, and was on the lam from the villainous (but not very well defined) "Authority" of Hall's brief and bleak and too abrupt-ending novel.

These hardy (mostly British) women, bedecked in utilitarian handmade hemp attire, sweaty and presumably stinky from the hard work of either tending to their small farm or training in their leader's (Jackie's -- a now celibate lesbian and a ruthless megalomaniac) amateur "army," enjoy their time off work by occasionally "secreting" to the few local remnants of men for their lascivious, sexual gratification. Woo hoo! These women actually use these men as sex objects! (can you believe that a woman would do that to a man?!) Oh the heinous role reversal of revenge! Do I embellish somewhat? Yes, since some of these men are the actual husbands of the Carhullan lasses, "allowed" by Jackie to remain nearby, but not allowed on Carhulla's grounds.

Daughters of the North is not just about sex -- darn! -- (though there's plenty of it), but about a commune of wounded women, the majority of which arrived at the compound having just escaped their abusive captors, be they brothers or fathers or boyfriends or husbands. England becomes the symbol then, of the abusive, domineering male, as the nation transforms in less than a decade into what the women must ultimately escape: A democracy turned tyrannical patriarch, North Korea kind of nation. England loses its liberties when...well, maybe that's giving away too much of the story. But I will say it involves the Thames River, in what amounts to about the only plausible (and original) potentiality of the novel.

We learn about the demise of free society (and the ruin of London) through the fed-up eyes of a young woman known only as "The Sister,'" who sneaks out of the relocation tenements in order to locate (and hopefully live and be accepted) into what she's come to believe since being a teen could be her destiny, her Shangri-La, the mythic, legendary enclave of Carhulla.

When she gets there, she receives abuse at the hands of her fellow women far worse physically and emotionally than any abuses she's ever suffered previously at the hands of Big Brother (I mean the "Authority"). Her confinement to what amounts to a sensory deprivation tank filled with excrement, is rationalized by Carhulla's leadership as protecting the greater good of Carhulla, and a way to verify (if not initiate) if "the Sister" is who she says she is and that she's not a spy sent by the Authority. The Sister is ultimately treated well but, sorry, what a bunch of unlovely bitches most of these ladies are.

Sarah Hall, photo by Richard Thwaites
Frank Herbert wrote about ultra-unconscionably cramped living conditions and harsh treatment of initiates three decades previously in The Dosadi Experiment, as have an even more famous host of other mid-century, brave new writers long since dead. In other words, this particular "futuristic" concept of Halls is tired and untrue; it's unoriginal, as are just about every futuristic concept she tries to sneak by her readership, like how the Authority controls women's reproductive rights. No way! I've never read about that in a dystopia or science fiction novel before! And if governments like China right now are controlling women's reproductive rights, what's so science-fictiony and shocking and making-for-a-good-yarn about the topic any more, anyway?

The power of well executed dystopias like Yevgeny Zamyatin's, We, for instance, lies in its believability -- this could really happen here in Britain! -- and hyper-parody of present politics gone off the dictatorial deep end, as well as satirizing a culture's fear-climate of compliance, like what Alexander Zinoviev adroitly accomplished so successfully in his late 1970s encyclopedic skewering of the former-Soviet Union's government (and many of its complicit citizenry) in The Yawning Heights.

Frankly, there's little power or believability in Sarah Hall's novel. Sarah Hall expects us to believe that thirty-two women could sack a city controlled by an Authority (and c'mon, Sarah, couldn't you be a bit more clever and creative than calling your Evil Antagonist the...'Authority'?) and hold that city in their power for fifty-three days, 24/7! Are you kidding? Thirty-two British Commando's couldn't sack a city and hold it for two-and-a-half months morning noon and night. Did you see what happened when about thirty-two American Airborne Rangers tried to extract one individual of importance in Somalia, Sarah? They barely survived a week against that city.

I don't think Sarah Hall believes her Carhullan Army could have pulled off such a coup either. Otherwise, wouldn't she have shown us in the text how they did it exactly, rather than tell us that they did do it in a tacked on page-and-a-half epilogue? Weak.

I've been hard on Sarah Hall. Hard on her because she's obviously a gifted writer who's written an acclaimed historical debut (Haweswater) and been shortlisted for a Booker Prize (The Electric Michelangelo) but who made what has to be considered a gross misstep here with The Daughters of the North.

Ultimately, I don't recommend this novel because it's a bad novel per se (it isn't) or a novel with an implausible plot (though it definitely is that), but because the average informed reader has probably already read the book before in some form; read much better and believable books before, in fact, assuming they've read Margaret Atwood's most iconic dystopic stuff, or Huxley or Orwell's most famous, finest hours.

In a sentence, Daughters of the North should stay far to the south in any serious reader's tbr pile.


  1. Contemporary Dystopia..has to be Margaret Atwood. I've read her books since 1969..I may be "old'..but Meggie is the Boss



Post a Comment