Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall’s new novel, Daughters of the North, is compared on the cover to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and P.D. James’s The Children of Men, meaning that there is no way it could be as good as either of those two books. And it isn’t.

Set in a dystopic England where the ruling power is the Authority, and civil liberties as we know them
have vanished, the protagonist, a woman known only as Sister flees her unloving marriage and monotonous job to seek shelter with a sort of cult/commune consisting only of women. After a rough encounter with the commune’s patrol, Sister is eventually welcomed into the community and we are introduced to the other women through her eyes.

The commune is called Carhullan, and is run by a woman named Jackie Nixon. Jackie seems a bit rough, and as the narrative progresses we become more and more aware that she has some sort of special forces training and has a massive distrust of men. This feminist angle is a little tired, but Hall doesn’t harbor on it all that much. The feminist themes are more reflections of power between the oppressed and oppressors, making things more palatable. Jackie eventually lets the others know that the government is coming to take them from their land, and the predictable attempt to take up arms against an authorit
arian leadership emerges.

Sister goes through many changes during her stay, eventually joining Jackie’s militia despite some misgivings about her leader’s methods. However, this line is ineffective due to Hall’s failure to establish an emotional connection between the reader and Sister. I wasn’t swayed by her qualms because she never felt like a real character to me. She only went through the same predictable motions as any stock character is such a situation. Without this sympathetic connection, what possible resonance could the story have?

Most dystopian stories will keep the actual events leading to the dire situations somewhat, if not entirely, shrouded. Hall follows this path through most of the book, but near the end has a paragraph describing the losses England suffered due to the IRA bombings and ongoing wars in Asia and South America. But just as quickly, she moves on, making these tidbits irrelevant and annoying.

The book was published here in America by Harper Perennial, and includes the afterword section labeled ‘P.S.’ These sections are obviously sales devices foremost, but they do include some interesting material. I especially enjoyed the essay Michael Chabon included about the writing of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh in the new edition of that novel. But as I read the interview with Hall at the end of this book, I realized that it was more interesting itself than the narrative. And when that’s the case, it’s unsurprising that I didn’t find Daughters of the North to be all that good after all.

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