'The Carhullan Army' by Sarah Hill has been on my library wish list for a long time, possibly from when Dunk and I heard part of the dramatisation on Radio 3 last year.
This is quite a book. It is set in northern Britain, in a post economic collapse, post climate change society, where an autocratic Authority controls everyone's lives; where they live, where they work, and most significantly their ability to have children. It is written in the form of a confessional transcript, the testimony of a prisoner, so you know right from the start that whatever happens it is not going to end well. A young woman abandons her life and husband to walk up into the wilds of the Cumbrian moors to find a mythical women's community. Not strictly mythical I suppose because she knows that they used to be there, knows their reputation, she's just not sure it still exists. It is told first person, so what we have is Sister's thoughts and reactions, her version of the story, as someone who goes seeking sanctuary, but also offering herself up to be of service to the army. To begin with it appears that they are survivalists, eking out a living from farming and hunting, having babies courtesy of a small group of men who live an even more abject and excluded existence in some huts down in the valley; they really are quite pitiable creatures and it felt slightly as if their purpose in the story was to highlight the forceful and dominant character of Jackie, the group's leader. Her initiation into the group is violent and cruel, designed to both break her and test her, but once accepted she settles into the life, works hard and forms bonds with the other women, but all the time curious about Jackie's 'unit' who patrol the moors. It is only as time passes that it becomes clear that while most of them are intent on simply making a life, Jackie is certain that their situation cannot be permanent and that time will eventually come for action.
"The women from the moor took my arms. As they led me away around the thick outer wall of the farm I glanced up towards the fells. There was so little daylight that the horizon had almost disappeared. I squinted into the distance. The ground had lost its definition and the summit of High Street seemed to bleed into the teal of the night. The elements were combining darkly, but for a second or two I thought I saw a long row of black outlines, human figures, standing on the ridge against the sky. I could not be sure of it. But in that one glance, before I was pushed inside the narrow iron structure, there seemed to be a ring of people on the hillside above Carhullan. There were too many of them to count." (p.70)
The whole book has a dark brooding quality, the overshadowing of their existence by both the harsh environment and the implied threat from the Authority; this is no rural idyll. But there is this strong sense of common purpose and comradeship, a true community even in the face of differences of opinion. There's a certain amount of symbolism going on in the characters, each emphasising different qualities but they were very real people. What's not to like, it's got strong women characters, they are in pursuit of controlling their lives in the face of overwhelming odds, they are not afraid and never cowed, prepared to fight for what they believe in. It doesn't have to have a happy ending.