In a short, pared-back story of a dystopian Britain, John Lanchester hammers home where climate change might be leading us.
The book’s narrator is Kavanagh, who is just beginning his two years guarding the wall, a defence around the whole of Britain that has been erected to keep out the Others – the migrants who are braving the seas in order to get in to Britain.
[Spoiler alert] He begins as a terrified rookie but gradually builds up his skills and becomes friendly with his shift, particularly Hifa who he strikes up a relationship with, and another guy called Hughes. They do OK for a while, but when a horrific attack occurs they are put out to sea, and embark on a new part of their life, not as Defenders but as Others. Adrift in a small lifeboat, they become part of a community of Others for a while, before finding an odd, lonely and, probably temporary, sanctuary.
My recollection of the other book I’ve read by John Lanchester, Capital, is that its a thought-provoking, state-of-the-nation kind of novel about post-financial crash Britain. The Wall is similar in this respect, though slimmer, harder, more focused.
Like Capital, in The Wall it’s the message, the overall idea, that’s driving the plot, not the characters. Kavanagh has a bit of depth, and his narration style is simple, to the point, and enjoyable to read, but he is really telling the story of a society, not his life. Hifa, despite being the second major character, is almost unknown to the reader. The Captain, whose life and back story ought to have been the most interesting, is unexplored.
But that doesn’t matter. You read The Wall because of its theme, and in this it’s a very impressive book.
It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to picture sea levels rising, millions of people fleeing their homes in search of land, and Britain setting up a defensive wall and conscripting people to spend two years of their life guarding the wall. That we’re already seeing mass migration due to climate change, the talk of a wall from the US president, and boats of migrants looking for asylum arriving on European shores weekly, make Lanchester’s dystopian vision alarmingly close. You can’t escape from the realism of what ought to seem a fantasy.
It’s the details of how such a society might function that really give this book it’s depth. The two years on the wall that everyone does. The sense of the Others, the migrants, risking their lives to get over the wall. The terrifying and thoroughly effective fact that if, as a Defender, you let one Other over the wall, then you’ll be put out to sea – one out, one in. The way people might choose to become Breeders, whose job is to have kids. Or that people like the Captain will opt for multiple tours of the wall in order to get better accommodation or food.
Perhaps the most effective – and, again, realistic – part of the book is the sharp divide between parents and children – the guilt the parents feel at having let the world burn in their time, and the anger the children feel at their parents for condemning them to a tough, hopeless life.
And what you can’t help wonder, all the way, through is what else is going on in this horrific world. What else is happening inside the wall, inside Britain? What kind of a country is it? What is the government like? And what’s it like in other countries? Similar, or not? How many people are migrating? What kinds of lives are they living on the seas trying to get in to Britain?
They are questions that Kavanagh never thinks about or addresses. The implication being that he, like everyone else, hasn’t the brain space or energy to think about them; on the Wall, on the seas, everywhere, there’s no time to think about anything other than survival. But for the reader, it’s precisely because the world Lanchester describes is so close to ours that we can’t help but wonder about what else is going on outside the narrow confines of the bare life of Kavanagh.