Daughters of the North
By Sarah Hall
Harper Perennial, 240 pp.
There's a scene early on in Daughters of the North, by part-time North Carolinian Sarah Hall, that is so viscerally horrifying that it functions as a useful shorthand for the novel's dystopia as a whole.
In a post-apocalyptic England so ravaged by foreign wars and economic collapse that its citizens depend on food aid from America for survival, the novel's unnamed protagonist (calling herself Sister) has been involuntarily fitted with a government-issued IUD to control her fertility. Coming home, still sore from the insertion, she finds her once-loving husband immediately eager to make love despite the doctors' 24-hour prohibition, an act she neither denies nor really consents to. He completely loses himself in the sex, completely incognizant of the extent to which she has already been violated by medical science in the service of the state, or the way his own selfishness compounds that first injury: "'Oh, God, yeah,' he whispered as I pushed him inside, 'it's so wet.'" He's responding to the medical jelly still in her body from the procedure, but perhaps even (in a not-so-sublimated eroticization of rape) to the very fact of the violation itself.
But even this scene, this devastating critique of the callous solipsism of patriarchy that stayed with me for days after reading the novel, evokes a very similar betrayal in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, whose protagonist (her real name is likewise never given, calling herself only Offred) finds her husband totally unsympathetic to the increasingly perilous situation of women in their society; after the dehumanizing announcement of a ban on women holding jobs or owning property, he similarly wants nothing more than to make love.
I bring up The Handmaid's Tale with more than a little trepidation, but Daughters of the North is so plainly modeled on Atwood's original that the comparison is inescapable. While in Atwood's novel the horror is linked to a culture of rape that holds women as chattel, in Hall's novel it originates in mandatory contraception to curtail population growth and in a fertility lottery—two very different forms of control over women's bodies that amount to more or less the same thing in the end. Both novels, too, share a similar narrative frame: Both are the testimony of a representative woman from the society, with Atwood's novel ending with a satiric academic analysis from a scholar 100 years in Offred's future, and Hall's novel peppered throughout with archival language like "File One: Complete Recovery" and missing sections labeled only with [DATA LOST].
(Hall has a few wonderful uses of this gimmick near the end of the novel that call into question the authority and objectivity of testimony itself. Just like in real life, particular sorts of data seem a lot more likely to wind up "lost.")
Where Hall breaks from Atwood, and what keeps Daughters of the North from being a mere retread, is its focus not on normal life in dystopia but on resistance to it. When we meet Sister, she is sneaking out of her wretched hometown in search of Carhullan, an independent settlement in the "unofficial zone" said to be run by free women. And it gives nothing away to say that, surprisingly, she finds it—unlike most dystopias, Hall's resistance is not a fairy tale or a mere whisper but real and in-the-flesh.
Nor is this enclave unduly utopian: The resistance at Carhullan is as beset by violence and bitter internecine disputes as the society it rails against. Like any revolution, the women of Carhullan are prepared to kill if necessary, and as with any group of revolutionaries there are some among them that are eager to do so, that are looking for any excuse. When Sister arrives at Carhullan, she is not greeted with open arms but suspected of being a spy and is brutally tortured—as bad or worse than the treatment she might expect to receive at the hands of the "Authority" that runs Britain if the situation were reversed.
Hall's revolution is not one we can necessarily easily embrace; it plays its own mind games and works to secure its own power and control. We find ourselves as deeply suspicious of it as we are of the authority it opposes, worried in some ways that they may be two sides of the same coin, while at the same time we cannot help but hope for its success.
It's this hope that may seem very far away in our moment of extraordinary rendition, emergency powers and unrestricted executive authority, a moment that isn't at all hard to connect with Hall's dystopia—which is why it's a little strange, and yet somehow at the same time absolutely necessary, to set out to read a book that you know will deliberately toy with and then destroy any hope you have for a better tomorrow. It's something like picking at a scab. Many of us have read Atwood and George Orwell, after all—and even those who haven't will learn all they need to know about what sort of book this is if they pay careful attention to the italicized words on the book's first page: English Authority Penal System Archive—record no. 498: Transcript recovered from site of Lancaster holding dock. Statement of female prisoner detained under Section 4(b) of the Insurgency Prevention (Unrestricted Powers) Act. We know what sort of book we're in. We know this can't end well.
I'm reminded a bit of the words of the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano: "Let's save pessimism for better times." And yet Hall's dystopian story of resistance and struggle, even in its inevitable defeat, must be read at the same time as a kind of optimism, striking in its final pages a defiant chord that reminds us power can sometimes be defeated, if not always, and if always at great cost.