Booker Longlist Review: The Wall by John Lanchester
This is my first book by Lanchester, although I’ve been meaning to read his novels for ages. I’ve read his journalism regularly for years. This is very prescient, obviously, not just because of the wall that dominates the story, but also because of the intersection of climate change and the displacement of vast populations. The wall surrounds an island nation which is obviously Britain in the near or not-so-near future. Every young citizen is required to serve two years guarding the wall, except for the offspring of the very elite, who somehow escape this duty. Our narrator, Kavanagh, is just taking up his post when the story opens, and the first section of the novel chronicles his experiences as a Defender.
Being a Defender is relatively dull, but the consequences of failure are profound. Defenders are trained to prevent people called Others from successfully scaling the wall and entering the fortified nation. Although everyone is chipped, and therefore Others are fairly quickly discovered and apprehended, the penalty for Defenders who fail to prevent entry is to be put to sea in small boats, on a one-for-one ratio. In other words, if fifteen Others enter the country then fifteen Defenders and other culpable people must be sent away.
The first sections are taken up with the quotidian aspects of Kavanagh’s new life. He learns the procedures to follow, gets to know some of his fellow Defenders, goes back to see his parents on his off-rotation time, and generally settles into a set routine. The language is simple and Kavanagh doesn’t have particularly interesting thoughts. If Lanchester was aiming to portray military boredom through the writing style, he does so fairly effectively. I didn’t find it boring (although I’m sure some readers will), and while the world-building is minimal you do get a strong sense of how circumscribed people’s lives are. There is a generational divide between the older people who remember a time before the Change which brought about the wall and the younger people who have only known the time since.
The second and third sections are much more action-filled. I don’t want to spoil the book for people who haven’t read it, because I thought it worked well for me to go into it without much background. You can probably guess what happens. Kavanagh develops a romantic attachment which continues through the story, and we learn more about Others and the world beyond the wall. Other readers have observed similarities with Exit West, which I can kind of see, especially in the structure, but beyond that and the fact that they are both dystopian novels set in a recognizable future, I don’t see the parallels.
There is much to admire, but I don’t know how long it will stay with me. Writing from the POV of a squaddie/grunt in a dystopian future England works well. It’s an ideas book, not a character study or exercise in literary style. Everything is told to the reader after the fact, so we don’t get to inhabit the characters, and while there are a few deft sentences to locate the people and places, it’s mostly “and this happened, and then that happened.” That said, the scenes in which things happen (as opposed to when Kavanagh and his fellow Defenders are waiting for things to happen, for example) are gripping and effective.
I thought the later sections worked quite well, but I’m in a minority there. Some readers have labeled this as YA (and one newspaper reviewer called it a young adult adventure in the later parts). It’s certainly not genre YA as we now understand it, and while the language is simple, I think that’s a choice that reflects the narrator, not the intended audience. Compared, say, to John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began, which struck me as textbook YA, this novel feels pitched to an adult readership (although young people could read and enjoy it as well).
Lanchester took a chance in writing the novel in a flat, affectless way, and it clearly failed for some readers. I interpreted the choice as one that could drive home the extent to which life became profoundly constrained and lacking in hopeful options, unless you were one of the elite. Kavanagh is not highly educated and mostly without direction, which seems entirely plausible in this world. It’s a story about an average person in a dystopia.