Monday, 8 June 2009


The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall. It's a near-future or parallel-present dystopia. A surprising number of reviews I've read dismiss it as derivative of, and adding nothing to the dystopian/post-apocalyptic genre, but I've read lots of books in that space and I must say that I don't think it was a rehash. The narrative is vivid and gripping, one of those short, intense novels you stay up late to finish. Although I felt a little uncomfortable when a girl of Indian origin is described as having 'placid' eyes and given a certain calm wisdom which feels a bit too close to stereotype, the characters are by and large interesting and in one case fascinating enough to be unforgettable.

The Carhullan Army are a group of renegade women who live in a self-sustaining farm, far beyond the reach of the totalitarian Authority that has taken over the UK. They decide the time has come to fight the enemy, before they are crushed, and the violence and uncompromising insistence on loyalty among them makes one wonder whether the lengths they go to are justified. The book also explores the extent of a woman's potential for violence if social conditioning for traditional gender roles is done away with. And whether a flawed alternative to a flawed system is worth the effort, because the Carhullan community, for all its good points, seems as deeply flawed as the society it rejects, and just as predicated on undercurrents of power and intimidation.

It's not new territory but Hall mixes it in with telling details that comment on contemporary politics, and a picture of life in a sort of all (or mostly) female society that is not strictly unprecedented but absorbing. I really liked Hall's style and the way she patterns her concerns and concepts into the narrative fabric and hope she dabbles in borderline SF territory again.

An interview with Sarah Hall.


The Dream Of Scipio by Iain Pears. An ambitious book which tries to weave together three inter-related narratives from different periods of history. The project seems to be to contrast secular and faith-based views of civilization, pragmatism and idealism, practicality and bravado, Christanity and Platonism and what it means to be complicit with the wrong side for what you have decided are the right reasons. This is explored in the contexts of the onset of the dark ages, the coming of the black plague and the Nazi occupation of France.

The historical details and philosophical by-play are very well rendered, but the narrative feels a little scattershot, with entire sections being told in a sort of discursive, academic manner, like a somewhat layperson-oriented history book, and the occasional scene that is depicted rather than reported. Told, rather than shown, you might say. It's an effective technique in shorter formats, or with a more charismatic writing style, but here it often makes for pages of rather flat narrative.

The feeling I get is that the author's reach did not quite match his grasp and, especially towards the end, there is a rushed feeling as if he is trying to plug in all his plot points before he loses it. Worthwhile for the dilemmas it touches upon, and attempts to resolve, and the feats of pseudohistorical invention, but not quite satisfactory.

An interview with Iain Pears.

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