Daughters of the North, by Sarah Hall.
Daughters of the North, by Sarah Hall. Harper Perennial (2008), Paperback, 209 pages.
Daughters of the North is a brilliantly written novel that pushed me in disturbing ways to think about my own beliefs.
I read this book because I kept finding bloggers praising Sarah Hill. This is the first book of hers I found. As I read the first pages, I felt what I do feel from time to time, the exquisite sense of being in the hands of someone that handles the English language well. The characters she creates are sharply drawn and believable. I ended the book even more convinced of Hall’s ability as an author and ready to find more of her books.
Daughters of the North is about a society gone wrong—wrong in all the ways ours seems to be going only further down that passage. The community of women at Carhullan have rejected that society and created an alternative for themselves, living together and farming the land in northern England. Through hard work, they have learned to live in an extremely challenging location. In the process of establishing their community, the sixty plus women have become closely bonded.
Numerous women have written feminist utopias, but Carhullan is different. No rhetoric of women’s essential nature is spoken. The women have learned to be tolerant of each other and to cooperate, more for survival than because of alleged womanly virtues. They are free to chose men or women as sexual partners. Some of the women find sexual pleasure with men living nearby, but men have been the direct agents of pain for others of them.
At the time the narrator, known only as Sister, arrives at Carhullan, some of the women are training to be warriors under the community’s charismatic leader. Cruelty is being cultivated even in this utopia. With the perception of danger to the community from the powers that control the rest of world, preparation intensifies for an assault on a governmental base in the town from which the narrator has fled. We follow the changes in the community and in the narrator that this shift entails—the regret which she feels as she does what she believes is right and her discovery of beauty and fulfillment in acts of violence.
The turning point in the book for me was when the group’s leader asks the narrator if the gun she carried had made her feel safer and if she would have used it in a particularly demeaning moment. The ensuing shift toward increased violence made me uncomfortable, as I am sure Hall intended. Do we as women have to become as big bastards as men if we are to be free? Should we enjoy it?
I not sure if Hall actually shares the faith in violence of her narrator or if she is only pressing her readers to consider the deadly stakes. I can not imagine joining a group committed to killing others. I am a firm believer in passive non-violence as a means of bringing change, at least in a society where some people still retain a sense of conscience. For me the key is whether or not I believe in goodness can prevail. Reading Daughters of the North, I had to think and feel through the old issues again.
I highly recommend this book to any one who thrives on good books and likes to be challenged.