Reading ‘The Carhullan Army’ by Sarah Hall

My book has come and I’m half way through already.  It was suggested to me that I should do a quick review à la Mark Kermode who does a straight to camera first impression as he steps out of the cinema before a more in depth review a week later.  I’m not sure if this works with books but that is a thought for another day.

It is exhilarating reading The Carhullan Army.  There is a spirit of disgust with one’s surroundings and hope for an external site of salvation through being taken into a group of outsiders which I find as inspiring as the writing style I had been enamoured with on the first browse in the bookshop.  It speaks of the dangers of leaving it too late to take a stand and being implicated in the uninhabitable aspects and areas of our social organisation, of being infected by the horrors of society.

I don’t want to review the book here but rather express the way it has incited a line of thought and resistance in me.  It’s not just the narrator who is borne along by the charismatic hope offered by the women of Carhullan.  There is something cultish and fanatic which I run away with also as I read.  But these attitudes are dealt with and presented in such complexity and through a mindset of critical self-appraisal as events unfold, revealing the frustrated expectations which uncover the fictions of our desires and how they are different from satisfaction in the real, that one feels as though genuine exploration of radicalisation is underway.  And it is affecting enough to feel as though I am exploring the potential for radicalisation in myself.

It is a book which draws me in and elicits an embracing love – the cult fiction effect – I have become a fan.  I worry, after having completed an MA in Philosophy and Literature, that I feel so unequipped to explain or analyse the mechanism at work here.  But there is something that escapes the fictional content of the text.  Identification is at work.  I see something of myself in the character.  I also have an affective response to the character and the work.  So I make elements of my Self more defined through comparison with the character.  And I also surprise myself through the series of thoughts and attitudes ignited in the present as I read the work and see new aspects of my character which were not distinct in my picture of my own character.  Yet at the same time I am aware that there is something flattering about the elements I choose to identify with.  When you embrace this fictional other, a hero at the centre of this alternative universe, the elements which can be brought into definition in your own self-portrait are exaggerated, fantastical, in danger of being nothing more than wish fulfilment.

In any case, more so than the exploration of surprising elements of my affective response, I am interested in the relationship of the individual to society, the tipping point where pragmatism becomes untenable, the point where the individual cannot endure the practices of her society and has to relinquish membership of the group in order to maintain her sense of self.  This is a book where a woman makes the walk away from society becoming a non-person an ‘unofficial’.  So far, the most hopeful period of her walk away has been the road without any other human beings, before she reaches her new group, walking away from the others and finding herself.  Perhaps this is the most dispiriting element of the dystopia – the seeming impossibility of finding oneself in relationships with others.

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One thought on “Reading ‘The Carhullan Army’ by Sarah Hall

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.

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