The Wall by John Lanchester
Border Walls are all the rage at the moment, along with the vexed social question of who gets let in and, more important, who does not. With Trump’s Mexican wall hogging the headlines, I was hijacked into thinking that we would be in America and that the wall in question would be an internal barrier. How wrong I was. This book is much more like the UK’s answer to Margaret Atwood and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. A dystopian future, where things are very different to our present, but frighteningly similar at the same time.
The Wall in this book is featureless, reflecting bleak surroundings and often referred to as ‘concretewindwatersky’. It is a concrete monster that runs along the entire sea coast of the UK. An impenetrable defense against ‘Others’, the name given those trying to enter the country. Sitting firmly in the post-Brexit world, we are asked to imagine a time when borders really are closed.
More chillingly, this concrete wall is permanently manned by soldiers. They are like the children of Brexit. It is as if their parents voted for separation and now their children are separated from them to serve a two-year stretch in the army, 12-hour shifts waiting for an invisible enemy. The ‘Others’ could attack at any moment and must be resisted at all costs. Inside the concrete barrier, ordinary people have stopped having children, unwilling to consign them to the two-years of hardship. Should any of the ‘Defenders’ on the wall wish to, they can become ‘Breeders’ and be rewarded with better conditions and more privileges. Their children will still, eventually, guard the Wall.
Most of all the Wall itself is unrelentingly cold and dark, and guarding it a constant monotony. Watching and waiting for something, anything, to happen. At first, I thought this was all the book was going to be, a slow, confusing world where events are opaque. But very suddenly we are hurled into action sequences and the story rips along. To say any more about the plot would ruin some of the many surprises.
Lanchester is a master story teller. From his superb first book ‘The Debt to Pleasure’ with its wonderfully named and unreliable hero, Tarquin Winot, to the wide-ranging portrait of London in his last novel, ‘Capital’, we see his ability to develop a complex plot. In this latest book the technique takes the form of a slow reveal. For the first fifty pages we have no geography to tell us where in the world we are. Suddenly, from no-where, ‘At London, we split up.’ Casual as you like. We have unusual phrases; Defenders, Others, and a hardly explained event called ‘The Change’. The point at which everything becomes different. Gradually we learn how to interpret all this.
This novel is unexpected, unpredictable and hugely entertaining. The reader is always being surprised but also, if you look back from the end, you will see that very subtly you are being drip fed tiny amounts of information that you need to know in order for the story to make sense. It is a brilliant piece of writing. Perfect for our modern times of political uncertainty.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Faber and Faber, RRP $32.99