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John Lanchester: The Wall

This is the second book on my site with this title, the first being Marlen Haushofer‘s Die Wand (The Wall). In both cases the wall acts as a barrier, though the two books are very different in other ways. Indeed, it is more appropriate to compare the wall of this book with real life walls such as Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall and, more recently, the wall built by the Israelis to keep out the Palestinians and Trump’s (at the time of writing, non-existent) wall. The latter two have something in common, in that they were built to keep out people from land that was stolen from them.

The wall of this book is located in a possibly fictitious country and is set, apparently, some time in the future. Something called The Change has happened. We learn that the polar ice-caps have melted and many countries have had severe flooding, leading to mass emigration. The result is that oil is scarce, only the rich can afford to fly and nuclear fuel is the fuel of choice. We do know that the wall is protected by the Defenders, to keep out the Others, i.e. those fleeing from the flooding in their countries. We do know that they come from the sea. We also know that the wall is a coastal wall, defending the coast of the country for 10,000 kilometres. This country has a lot of coast. The wall is three metres wide at the top, every centimetre of the way. It is officially called the National Coastal Defence Structure. Given that the circumference of Britain is 12429 kilometres, that the wall would not necessarily take the circuitous route the coastline takes and that Britain would certainly have lost some territory due to the flooding, it seems possible that this country is based on Britain, though what has happened to Ireland and the various offshore islands is not mentioned. We also learn that there are no beaches left anywhere in the world.

The guards are people who are conscripted, presumably as part of their national service. Nominally their time at the wall is two years but that this can be extended by the Captain for breaches of military law, at the whim of the Captain. They spend their entire time at the wall and are both men and women. There is no privacy. Approved couples who are known as Breeders, are exempt from this service, as there is a shortage of children, as no-one wants to bring children into this awful world.

We follow a new arrival, called Kavanagh (a man). We do not know his first name. Conditions are Spartan and it is cold, very cold. There are guards every two hundred metres and their shifts are for twelve hours. The wall is guarded twenty-four hours a day. We follow the story of Kavanagh and his life on the wall. He gets to know his immediate neighbour guards, including Nifu, whose sex he is unable to initially determine, but eventually realises that she is a woman.

Life is quite hard but rarely do they have any intrusions from the Others. He learns that if any of the Others get through, the Defenders have to pay the price and the price is that they are put into a boat, towed out to sea and left to fend for themselves. The Captain is very strict and any slight dereliction of duty may be punished. He also learns that the Captain was once an Other, before the rules tightened up and he is therefore more eager than his colleagues to enforce discipline. A politician visits them and warns them that there are some people who think the country should let the Others in and are therefore likely to sabotage the defence of the wall.

We also learn of the Others. If they are captured, they have two options: to be killed or become Help, which essentially means slaves. Their owners clothe, feed and shelter them but do not, indeed, are not allowed to pay them. Even if they do enter the country, they are unlikely to survive long without being caught. All citizens are chipped and, as the Others would not be chipped, they would soon be detected.

Kavanagh (whose real name is Joseph but who is nicknamed Chewy, as it is what he called the firsts army sandwich he ate) gets involved in mock exercises and then a real attack. He then is transferred up North where things are quieter.

The final part of the books is about the Others and we see life from their point of view which is not, of course, easy. Clearly, Lanchester has a certain amount of sympathy for the refugees of our day and age, as they come out well in this book. Inevitably, there are showdowns, clashes and unpleasant events.

The story (yes, there is a love story involved) is well told and his apocalyptic vision of environmental disaster and a Trump-like wall round (presentably) Britain, is sadly not too far fetched and there are, of course, the inevitable unexpected plot twists, which makes for an enjoyable read.

Publishing history

First published 2019 by Faber & Faber