Tag Archives: Sarah Hall

Embracing the wild: The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall


Susiraja (Finnish) – Literally ‘wolf border’: the boundary between the capital region and the rest of the country. The name suggests everything outside the border is wilderness.

Rachel Caine studies wolves. Her work takes her to some remote places. She’s often alone, isolated. Her relationships are fleeting. She is, and forgive me for saying it, the archetypal “lone wolf”. Raised by a mother who lived by her own rules, alienated from her family, she finds herself moving to her homeland in England’s north to embark on a controversial project to reintroduce wolves to the landscape. But it is a landscape steeped in history, class and politics, and the wolves aren’t the only part of her new life that tends towards the “wild”.

Delving into the idea of the separation between civilization and the wilderness, the sense of place is amazing, Hall obviously has an affinity for the locations she describes so well. And of course it isn’t just animals that are wild things. From sex and reproduction, child birth and motherhood to fear and love, each character confronts their own primal nature alongside the instincts of the wolves their fates are intertwined with.

I’m not entirely sure what Hall did here, one minute I was opening this novel and what felt like five minutes later I was racing to finish the last few chapters having not moved for eight hours. I suppose when you’re laid up with a virus these things happen, but her novel seems to have some kind of hypnotic quality. It is a tale so artfully told it seems effortless, almost plain. The threads between the different themes, the different kinds of “wildness” are connected with such tiny stitches you hardly notice them.I love Hall’s work, I always have and I really enjoyed this one. But. But. Something felt off. This novel has a strangely tame feel. I expected it to unravel in a far more dramatic manner but Hall keeps it in check, steering it confidently while keeping me on the edge of my seat. The conclusion was satisfying, don’t get me wrong. But something I expected, don’t ask me what it is, didn’t eventuate and it left me slightly unsatisfied.  I think I wanted this tale of the wilderness to have a little more bite.

The Wolf Border, Sarah Hall: four and a half stars.

Read it if: you need to see that the line between wild and tame isn’t so clear cut as you might think.

#YesAllWomen? On feminist fiction

Once upon a time I wrote a feminist blog. It didn’t start out that way but more and more I noticed the way the stories we told each other sidelined women’s interests, subbed out systemic inequality and constantly buried the lead of an ongoing pattern of violence. So the #yesallwomen stories, a social media response to the shooting in Santa Barbara, stirred both sadness and anger.

However, this is a book blog. So let’s dial it back a notch. Not so much with the hardcore political discourse. Let’s talk about feminist fiction. I started to compile a list of novels that I really enjoyed that were, intentionally or not, feminist in nature. Then I realised something. How devastatingly the stories of white, middle-class women the feminist fiction on my shelves is. Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood sure, both of whom I love, but where’s Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, both of whom I’ve read and enjoyed but recall only vaguely. I will reread in the near future. Meantime this is what I have:

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood“I long to commit the sin of touch.”

A modern classic, I think you either love this one or hate it. Atwood’s blunt and only thinly veiled social commentary is about women as the Madonna and whore writ large across a dystopian Christian fundamentalist US society. Our narrator is called Offred. Because she is the Handmaid “of Fred”, the commandant she has been assigned to be impregnanted by. Let that sink in.

Room, Emma Donoghue

A metaphor for women and children living under an oppressive power in miniature. Ma and Jack eventually escape Old Nick in a desperate escape attempt that involved faking Jack’s death. On the outside, to add insult to injury Ma is criticised on her parenting while in captivity. Great job society!

The Carhullan Army, Sarah Hall

Feminist and queer friendly, Sarah Hall’s novel pictures a dystopian future in which food parcels are shipped to Britain from the US and women are forcibly administered with contraception devices and subject to random, routine checks to ensure they are wearing it. Our narrator escapes to a women’s commune where living is hard but at least the State stays out of her pants.

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys – “Who you to tell me to go? This house belong to Miss Antoinette’s mother, now it belong to her. Who you to tell me to go?”

Jane Eyre itself is a feminist novel, for its era, but I loved Rhys’ reimagined life of its most marginalised character. Putting Antoinette, Mr Rochester’s one day wife, into the centre of the narrative against a backdrop of colonalism; race, wealth and gender co-mingle to create the perfect storm that drives her to breaking point. And then he locks her in an attic. Charmer.

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi – “This time, you’re leaving for good. You are a free woman. The Iran of today is not for you. I forbid you to come back!”

An autobiographical graphic novel about Strapi’s growing up in revolutionary Iran. Anti-authoritarian, anti-patriarchy, and class-conscious, the novel is a sad, frightening and occasionally funny series of snapshots of a girl’s relationship with Iranian politics and the contrast with western culture. I’m not a fan of graphic novels, but this one is a must read.

I asked around on Twitter and Facebook for more suggestions. I love the good people of the internet. This is what I got:

PBPsoftcover.qxdThe Paperbag Princess – this is a really great nomination. I only remembered it after I saw the illustrations. There’s a blog post on it here.

Crimson Petal and the White, Michael Faber.

Octavia Butler – sci-fi by a feminist, rather than feminist novels per se.

The Collector, John Fowles.

The Millennium series, Stieg Larsson.

The Ancient Future, Traci Harding.

The Phryne Fisher Mysteries series, Kerry Greenwood.

Daughter of the Empire, Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts.

The Bloody Chamber,  Angela Carter.

Alice in Wonderland,  Lewis Carroll.

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath.

The Color Purple, Alice Walker.

The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin.

A Woman of Substance, Barbara Taylor Bradford.

Your turn, can you add a favourite novel to the list?

Oh, about the old blog. I became unable to sustain any kind of timely blogging schedule, as you can see from my being unable to uphold my current blog’s sporadic blogging schedule, and in the end I gave it up. It currently sits locked behind a login screen. There are far more reliable witnesses, people with far more spirit and stamina than I, still reliably making excellent points about the culture of silencing, belittling and victimising women. I suggest you read them here, here and here and about a thousand other places.

Passing Bechdel: The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall

The Bechdel Test.

carhullan armyI haven't posted for a thousand years, dear reader, and I'm certain your lives have been a touch darker and emptier for my negligence. Never fear, I've got a great one for you today and I recommend you beg, borrow or download (legally) a copy.

In Hall's dystopian novel it is the “near future” and a series of disasters including war, oil shortages, rising sea levels and economic collapse have left Britain under martial law. Tinned food is shipped in aid packages from the United States, travel outside of cities is forbidden, all citizens are assigned repetitive jobs in factories. Women are forced to wear contraceptive devices and the right to reproduce is assigned by lottery.

Our protagonist, known only as Sister, leaves the city she is “registered” in and goes in search of the women at Carhullan. Once an eco-commune, the women of Carhullan were outside the city and living off the grid at a hill fort in a treacherous mountainous environment when disaster struck. There they remained, largely forgotten. Sister finds them and meets Jackie, a woman who has taken on the hardened features of the harsh landscape. Leader and soldier.

This is a dystopia from a woman's perspective. The story is told in flashback by Sister through English Authority Penal System archive documents. At first the complete picture of the disasters that have befallen Britain are shadowy, the nature of the oppression hazy, the suspense gradually gives way to rising horror. In a way the slow reveal acts as a metaphor for how matter of factly people accept the rule of law, even as it crushes them. In many ways the novel is a love story to oppressed classes. But it also makes a mockery of armchair revolutionaries, showing how quickly ideals are forgotten when danger is at hand. It draws a painful line between those who submit and those who simply cannot. It is eco-aware and queer friendly. The final pages are a call to arms.

Jackie is one of the more fascinating female characters I've ever met.

Having enjoyed another of Sarah Hall's books, How to Paint a Dead Man, she is becoming one of my favourite authors. She's Atwoodesque and an intuitive, talented writer.

The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall: four stars. (Incidentally, if you're looking for it in the US it's called The Daughters of the North.)

You'll like it if: you annoyingly bang on about The Handmaid's Tale to anyone who'll listen. If suspense enthralls, instead of irritates.

This post first appeared on my old blog A Shiny New Coin. It's got a little dust on it but it's still good.


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