Daughters of the North

by Sarah Hall

Cover image

Publisher: Harper Perennial
Copyright: 2007
ISBN: 0-06-143036-6
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 207

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My name is Sister.

This is the name that was given to me three years ago. It is what the others called me. It is what I call myself. Before that, my name was unimportant. I can't remember it being used. I will not answer to it now, or hear myself say it out loud. I will not sign to acknowledge it. It is gone. You will call me Sister.

I was the last woman to go looking for Carhullan.

It's the unspecified near-future. The British economy, and then society, collapsed from climate change, flooding, and endless wars. The cities are now governed by a fascist emergency Authority, a permanent martial law that controls people's work assignments and allocations and that has required women to have birth control devices inserted. The narrator's marriage has collapsed with the society; her husband does not understand why she is so upset about things that can't be changed.

And so, at the start of the book, she carries out a careful plan to walk away, leaving the city and her marriage behind for the abandoned countryside. She goes to Carhullan: an isolated, self-sustaining farm run by women who refused to be registered and relocated and therefore were stripped of citizenship. A community from which men are barred.

(Let me express my deep gratitude to Hall for starting with her escape, and showing the background only in flashbacks. That authorial choice made this a much better book.)

Daughters of the North (published in the UK as The Carhullan Army) is clearly SF in subject matter: near future dystopia, with a twist of feminist separatism reminiscent of the peak of second-wave feminism. I read it because it won the James Tiptree Jr. Award for speculative fiction that explores and expands gender. But it was also a finalist for the Man Booker prize, with all that implies about writing quality and focus. So be warned: along with a book review, you're also getting an extended digression into the nature of genre and how books like this use the same premise for considerably different goals.

Let me be clear from the start: the writing in Daughters of the North is gorgeous.

Rain blew in from the summit of High Street, colder than before, soaking my face and clothes again. I tried to fasten my jacket but my fingers felt awkward and would not cooperate, so I held it closed over my chest. I peered into the squall. There was still no sign of the farm or even the outbuildings. All I could see were drifts of rain and the relentless brown withers of fell, appearing then disappearing. The adrenaline of the encounter had worn off. I had walked more than twenty miles to escape. And I had gambled with my life. Now I felt numb, and close to seizing up. All I wanted was water to drink, and to take the bag off my back, lie down, and go to sleep. It took all my energy to put one foot in front of the other and remain upright.

It is gorgeous in the way mimetic fiction so often is, where individual moments are sketched through sensory impressions and emotional reactions and given room to breathe and be felt. It's unhurried and deliberate, but still lean and focused, describing the transformation of a woman in a slim two hundred pages.

What it is not is opinionated. Or, more accurately, it's not forthright about its opinions. It describes the feelings and reactions of a woman who becomes known as Sister, it hints at the emotional undercurrents that led her to make the choices that she made, it describes her transformation in the communal culture of Carhullan, and then it stops. What conclusions one draws from that are left entirely to the reader.

I've become convinced by the definition of genre as a set of reading protocols rather than a specific setting or plot structure. (My exposure to this idea is primarily via Jo Walton, but it's a common idea in SF criticism.) Books like this are a convincing way to test that definition. I suspect that many science fiction readers will come away form Daughters of the North profoundly unsatisfied, muttering things like "but what happened then?" or "but were they right?" I also suspect that many readers of primarily mainstream fiction will slip happily into this book and add it to the mental pile of speculative fiction they enjoy. Or, even more likely, decide it's not speculative fiction at all. And, in a way, I think they would be right.

In Daughters of the North, the world is setting. But in speculative fiction, the world is a character. The difference between setting and character is that characters change and grow over the course of the story, at least in the reader's understanding. Setting does not, or if it does, it changes incidentally.

In the supplementary material at the end of the edition of this book that I read, Hall says that she wanted to explore what might draw someone away from the established order and towards extremism or militancy. By the end of this book, one does have some feel for why the narrator made that choice, but it's tenuous and contradictory and conditional. I think Hall does a beautiful job of illustrating how much of life is inherently tenuous and contradictory and conditional. Decisions are rarely crisp and clear, but they still change one's life. Sometimes someone abruptly stops enduring the unendurable, and then something new happens. I think it's very telling, and very sharply observed by Hall, that although the narrator is fleeing humiliation and oppression, the part of her former life that bothers her the most is the futility and purposelessness. Carhullan, despite a few characteristics of utopia, is also brutal and political. But its charismatic leader never fails to give the community a purpose and a goal.

For the reader approaching this book through the speculative fiction reading protocol, though, it can be profoundly frustrating. There are glimmers of the expected plot arc: this world is awful, and the main character recognizes that and decides to act. There is some movement along that arc. But for the reader expecting setting as character, for the world itself to grow and change, Daughters of the North is maddeningly ambivalent. Who exactly are the Authority? What are they thinking; what are their motives? What's the best way to fight them? Is it the way Carhullan fights them? Will it work? What will they do in response? Daughters of the North is uninterested in these questions.

I think it's close to impossible to provide in the same book both the deep sense of character and sensation of mimetic fiction and the sense of change and revolution and setting as character of speculative fiction. The mission to change the world is emotional and political; it demands engagement and consumes the oxygen of the plot. It doesn't leave room for closely-observed ambiguity or ambivalence, or for the quiet spaces in the center of the narrator's character that allow the reader to interpolate or project, to try to puzzle out the shape of friendship and society and courage in a society that is by turn fanatical and utopian. I can write the mimetic fiction reader's reaction to the SF objections: do you want your emotions spoon-fed to you? Why do you want the book to tell you what to think instead of working it out for yourself? If this book described the details of politics and revolution, it would turn into another operatic war story, and all of the fine detail would be lost.

And, to be clear, they're not wrong. But neither is the SF reader; it's just another way of reading.

Despite my appreciation of what Daughters of the North is doing, and the skill with which Hall wrote it, I fear I'm far closer to the SF camp. Here's my counter-argument: I don't want to be told what to think, but I want a fight. I don't want the book to hint at moral dilemmas; I want it to take a stand so that I can argue with it. Write a passionate defense for your utopia. Why is it better? What works? What doesn't? Is the change in political communication style inside Carhullan an aspect of gender, or something Jackie (the Carhullan leader) created, or something any group of people could create with the right discussion structure? The Authority is clearly awful and clearly wrong, but what's the replacement? Is it more Carhullans? Something else? What do you think will happen past the end of this book? Why?

It's not that I want to be spoon-fed, it's that I want to engage. I wanted the story to fight for something, to go out on a limb, to take a risk on its opinions, to declare for a side. Yes, the world is ambiguous and murky: now what? We still have to act, we still have to make decisions, and we still have to decide if those decisions were right or wrong. How do we do that? What criteria should we use? Is Jackie justified in the things she does in this story?

That's what you get out of a story where the world is a character. You get worlds with character growth, which means an argument about change. Political, social, technological, often all three. Daughters of the North almost gets there, gets so very close by the end of the book to making that core argument, but then still turns inward. To the last page, it's more interested in closely observing Sister than in portraying change in the world.

I think some people will adore this book, and it certainly deserves the Tiptree award. It's a far more subtle story of feminist separatism than many of its predecessors, and examines the idea from some interesting angles. It never bored me and never bogged down; it kept me turning the pages eagerly to the end of the story, and I think it succeeded within the goals of its own genre. But, deep in my heart, I'm a world-as-character reader.

Content warning for those who might want it: Daughters of the North contains a detailed torture scene, a scene I would call partner rape, and a few instances of graphic violence.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-02-27

Last modified and spun 2019-02-28