The Wall – John Lanchester

No choice – everything about the wall means you have no choice.’ As with most dystopias, Lanchester’s The Wall is a grim reminder of what we’re messing up now. In his version of the (presumably) near-future, Britain’s coastline is now a huge concrete wall, a structure guarded night and day against attacked from The Others. A form of National Service is in place and young people are drafted in for a stint of defending the wall for two years. Being a Defender is unavoidable for most – there are certain exemptions – and our narrator is just at the beginning of his two years, or 730 nights, when we meet him. His new life is concrete and sea and waiting for the moment when an Outsider might try to scale the Wall. For every Outsider who manages to breach the defence, a Defender is put to sea.

We learn a good deal about the day-to-day routine, the mind-numbing boredom and the cold (there are two types of cold). We find out that Kavanagh has had a matter of a few weeks of training before he takes his place on the stretch of wall called Ilfracombe 4. We are told about the food he eats and the crew he slowly starts to know. We’re not given much specific information about the Change, the events which have led to the building of the National Coastal Defence Structure – we’re only given what Kavanagh himself knows – but that doesn’t really matter. We know anyway because we’ve already got the seeds sown ourselves. The thing is that Lanchester’s readers are the generation that Kavanagh’s generation will blame.

As a genre, the dystopian novel plays with our fears for the future and all the time you’re reading, there’s a nagging voice saying, ‘is it already too late?’ It would seem that, as with Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, much of what is happening in the novel is already really happening somewhere in the world. So the reader has to hang on to every small comfort offered, just like Kavanagh. And whilst this is a bleak novel in so many ways, it also features its comforts, its moments of optimism. It’s also incredibly readable, not least because Lanchester draws us into the comforting familiarity of routine, however militarised that routine is, before delivering his narrative shocks. The genre offers us a warning for us to heed, but there’s always that sense that we’re being too stupid/greedy/passive to choose the right options whilst there is still time. Kavanagh’s generation are right to blame us for what might happen next.

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