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BOOK REVIEW | summer 2008

Grimness and Grace
Nisi Shawl

Daughters of the North
By Sarah Hall
Harper Perennial

Daughters of teh NorthSet in a disturbingly near dystopian future, Daughters of the North makes beauty out of ugliness. In Sarah Hall’s novel, Britain is on the downhill side of a collapse all too believable in its gradual onset: Plagues, wars and natural disasters have triggered oppressive responses by the shadowy “English Authority,” which insists its curtailment of human rights is only temporary. Like all British women—even grandmothers past menopause and barely pubescent teens—Sister, the heroine, has been forcibly implanted with an IUD. She has been eating canned, lifeless food and enduring a loveless marriage with a beat-down compromiser, but as the book begins she’s already in the midst of her escape, walking away out of town in the dark before dawn, beneath “a white smear of moon, a ridged and filmy ulcer in the lining of cloud” and continuing on for miles through a “wet and rotting October.”

Sister is looking for Carhullan, a community of separatist women led by the charismatic Jackie Nixon. In contrast to the joyless regimen the ruling English Authority enforces, Carhullan’s primitive setup seems paradisial, despite the ringworm and grueling physical labor and occasional amputation without anesthesia. Hall makes liberal use of Lake District regionalisms, such as “smoor,” “bields” and “spean,” when describing the women’s work or the landscape that surrounds them, wrapping the ordinary in a glaze of exoticism as translucent and tough as onionskin.

Daughters has won the James Tiptree Jr. Award, an annual prize for science fiction or fantasy that explores and expands our understanding of gender. But publicity references to Margaret Atwood, George Orwell and Ursula K. Le Guin, authors of imaginative fiction who are also accepted as part of the mainstream canon, make it clear Hall’s publishers remain aware of the book’s speculative elements while trying to position it outside the confines of genre. A closer parallel would be Octavia E. Butler, whose Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents also deal with an unnervingly likely scenario of socioeconomic disintegration. Like Butler, Hall uses the power of austerity to evoke the world’s grimness and grace.

Perhaps the publicists don’t compare Hall to Butler because of racial differences; Butler was African American, and Hall is not. Yet Daughters, unlike many works of speculative fiction by white writers, refuses to let race remain the unmentionable elephant in the living room. Hall casts her nonwhite characters in the role of the beloved; both Nixon’s and Sister’s primary romantic relationships are with women of color. The course of true love never did run smooth, as Shakespeare says, and these relationships are problematic. But not so problematic as those with men, who are relegated to a satellite farm poorer even than Carhullan’s bare-bones operation, and excluded from the women’s military efforts.

Hall dares to put weapons in her women’s hands, and her characters lose nothing of their believability by using them. Though Daughters is divided into seven “files” with titles implying they consist of data retrieved from a captured insurgent, it reads more like a manifesto than a confession.

Hall recognizes the toxins endemic to dreams made real enough to live in—their warts, both literal and figurative— and her descriptions of Carhullan embrace them fully. She writes of painful costs and unromantic choices and the numbingly repetitive chore work that is necessary to change the world. Long beyond the novel’s end, hope lingers for the ultimate victory of these daughters of the harsh North, nursed by the author’s visionary pragmatism.

NISI SHAWL’S short-story collection Filter House has just been released by Aqueduct Press.

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