Friday, May 23, 2008

Daughters of the North

Daughters of the North, by Sarah Hall

A young woman runs away from a city run by an oppressive authority that controls every aspect of its citizens' lives, including their fertility. She heads into the mountains in search of a place she's heard about that has rejected the regime, living off the grid in a self-sustaining agrarian community. Close to her destination, she's attacked, from behind and without warning, by two soldiers who knock her down hard enough to whack the hell out of her knee and break her arm, then hold her down and search her possessions. Her captors march her to their headquarters, where their leader has her thrown into a metal dog box for three days, without medical treatment or food, only a little water.

Who are these brutal captors? Tools of the fascists she's trying to escape? No, this is Carhullan, the group of women she's come looking for. These are THE GOOD GUYS.

This is an intensely disturbing, even horrifying, book, not because of its depiction of a totalitarian, post-disaster England, but because its imagined alternative is so bleakly inhumane. Even after Sister (we'll get to the name issue in a minute) is let out of the box and more or less patched up, including having her IUD removed, no one apologizes for her treatment. No one introduces her to the community or tries to make her feel welcome. Instead, they just let her blunder around and try to insert herself into the hitherto hostile group.

I have rarely read anything that put my back up as much as this, when Sister enters the kitchen for the first time and everyone begins banging on the table:

I knew then that I was nothing; that I was void to the core. To get here I
had committed a kind of suicide. My old life was over. I was now an unmade
person. In the few days that I had been at Carhullan nobody had called me
anything but Sister, though they had seen my identification card and knew my
name, and I had shouted out my story over and over from behind the metal walls
of the dog box, trying to engage their sympathies, trying to tell them who I
was. The person I had once been, the person who had walked out of the safety
zones and up the mountain, was gone. She was dead. I was alive. But the only
heartbeat I had was the pulse they were beating through me.

It was not until the first of them left the table, came forward and took
hold of my neck and kissed my mouth, while the others continued to knock their
cutlery, and when the woman next to her followed suit, and the next, and the
next, that I began to understand what was happening. I realised what the noise
was. It was not a clamour intended to drive me out or to let me know I bore some
kind of stigma. It was the sign of acceptance I had been waiting for. It was
So: brutalization, isolation, deprivation, and depersonalization, followed by inappropriate and overly personal bonding. Isn't that classic cult induction behavior? And just like a cult victim, Sister not only doesn't resent what's happened to her, she thinks it's only natural. She thinks it's great.

The cult-like nature of Carhullan is reinforced by the presence of its founder, Jackie Nixon, who leads both through her ownership of the farm and the force of her charismatic personality. Sister -- and the author -- hero-worship Jackie, but to me she comes across very clearly as a psychopath, brilliant and charming when she wants to be, but totally manipulative and utterly without conscience or remorse. One community member realizes this too late, and winds up dead. Yet we're not supposed to hate Jackie, just to think that she's made a hard choice for the good of the community. I can only say, bullshit.

The casual cruelty and militarism of Carhullen depresses and, yes, offends me. I know that women are strong and capable; I know they can fight and sacrifice to meet their goals; I know that institutions run by women aren't all tea-drinking and group hugs. But Carhullan is not my idea of what women's strength must, or should, look like. The way to counteract oppression is not to become more vicious and soul-dead than your oppressors.

As for the setting of the story, I try not to be one of those genre readers who tell non-genre authors, "You can't play in our sandbox." That said, if you're GOING to play in our sandbox, take some time to learn the rules. Hall's world-building fails for me on a very fundamental level. I simply don't believe that any repressive totalitarian society, given the existence of a large body of otherwise useless conscript labor, is going to decide that it's cheaper and more efficient to abandon all farming and depend completely on imported foodstuffs. If there's one thing American slavery taught us, it's that farming with slave labor can be very productive and profitable; furthermore, the Chinese Cultural Revolution proved that you can transform an educated urban population into peasants if you're determined and callous enough. If Hall had tried to justify these conditions through some other device, such as pollution or radiation levels that made growing food unsafe, I might have bought that; but then she couldn't have had her little pocket "utopia."

The other thing that doesn't ring true for me about Carhullan is its sexuality. The main community at Carhullan is all female. A few men in a satellite settlement do some work on the farm, but it's clear the women could function without them; as Sister later explicitly states, they're essentially prostitutes and sperm donors. She first discovers their role when she and her workmates take some peat for fuel down to the men. As the women choose men and go off with them, she realizes that the true purpose of the trip is a mass booty call. Awkwardly declining her "share" of the men, she is left alone with another woman, Shruti. The sounds of the others coupling all around her start to turn her on; instantly, she's on fire for Shruti and the two of them have sex.

My problem with this is not Teh Gay; it's Teh Stoopid. I can accept that a woman who's never given any indication of previous lesbian or bisexual feelings (Sister had been married, and all her previous lovers were male) is suddenly attracted to another woman. I can't accept that she would just start making love to that woman as though she had decided to change brands of toothpaste. Sister displays no hesitation, no nervousness, no self-doubt or vulnerability; and neither does she have any great epiphany that this is what she's been waiting for all her life. I'm not asking for deep angst here, but some moderate soul-searching, some ACKNOWLEDGMENT of the issues, would be normal.

If I can drag in another medium here, consider the behavior of Dr. Callie Torres on Grey's Anatomy. Like Sister, Callie had been exclusively straight until she met cardiothoracic ace Erica Hahn. Callie reacted to her growing interest in Erica first with obliviousness; then with nervous laughter, denial, and sexual athleticism with the nearest available man; and finally with fear of social stigmatization, realization of what was really important to her, and acceptance. This is not the most realistic show on TV, and quite often drives me crazy, but Callie's working through the stages of the process strikes me as a thousand times more plausible than Sister's failure to even have a process.

The bizarreness of Sister's sexual on/off switch is even more apparent toward the latter part of the book. After she is with Shruti for more than a year, they break up when Jackie decides to turn the community into a fighting force and the women divide into factions. Sister immediately picks up with Calum, one of the men from the settlement, again without any indication that she finds it strange or even note-worthy to change her sexual focus to the other sex again.

This part bothered me for another reason as well. In the scene where Sister realizes the men's role for the first time, she seems uncomfortable with their marginalized status. But when she starts sleeping with Calum, it's not out of any sense of caring: he's simply a male sex object for her own gratification, and there's no indication that she finds the arrangement demeaning. Again, yes, women are sexual, they have needs, blah, blah, but the way to compensate for thousands of years of sexual exploitation is not to turn men into whores.

In a way, Sister's attitude reminds me strongly of Nicola Griffith's Ammonite, another widely admired novel I hated. In that book, a plague has killed off all the men on a colony world, and that means that all the space personnel and visitors who come to the world must be women also. It's a stretch, but not an entirely unreasonable one, that all the planet's inhabitants become lesbians within a single generation. It's entirely less reasonable to say that all the women coming from Earth in the present generation also instantly "convert" without any problem whatsoever. Just as some fundamentalists seem to believe that, deep down, all gay people are REALLY straight but just stubbornly refuse to admit it, Griffith and Hall seem to harbor the conviction that all straights are REALLY bisexual if they would just let go of their inhibitions. I'm heterosexual and I'm here to represent: it doesn't work that way.**

Speaking of other books that reviewers have mentioned in the same breath as Daughters of the North, I'm quite willing to accept comparisons to The Handmaid's Tale and The Children of Men*. (It also contains echoes of those dystopic classics 1984 and Brave New World, which nobody seems to have gotten around to mentioning.) But only a person who had never actually read The Dispossessed could link Sarah Hall with Ursula K. LeGuin. Anarres isn't perfect, but everybody's trying. I would love to live on Anarres; I couldn't tolerate a second in Carhullan.

I try to make it a policy never to buy a book online whose only user review is from Harriet Klaussner. I should have stuck to it.

*I've never read the book, but I admired the movie a lot.

**Edited to say that I don't think I fully expressed my thought. In fact, I agree with those people who have said that human sexuality lies along a spectrum, and that many individuals might harbor the potential for bisexuality or homosexuality but have never expressed it. However, even for those who do, deciding to act on that potential takes more than a shrug and an "oh well, no guys available, I better start lovin' on the women."

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