In The Wall, John Lanchester has channelled modern society’s xenophobia and failure to act on climate change into a massive concrete structure surrounding a very different England.
In the United Kingdom of the future, Brexit is the least of their worries. To keep out the rest of the world – ‘the Others’ – and the rising tides, a five metre wall has been built all the way around the country. Every part of the Wall is patrolled by conscripted Defenders who are charged with killing Others as they float up to the Wall on dinghies and rafts , desperately seeking asylum.
Somebody really should give a copy of this book to President Trump, it’s virtually a ‘how-to’ for anti-immigration devotees.
Side note: This may initially appeal to anyone waiting for Game of Thrones, Season 8 to come out in April 2019. I saw the words ‘John’ and ‘Wall’ and my mind immediately went to a different Jon and a different Wall. But alas, there are no dragons and no Tyrion to be found in John Lanchester’s new novel.
The opening chapters will make you even more convinced you’ve entered a parallel Kingdom of the North. Lanchester expends many (enjoyable to read) words describing the privations, freezing conditions, dangerous work and utter boredom that is life on the Wall as a Defender. Two years of military service on the Wall is a national requirement. It takes several hundred thousand troops to defend every metre of the Wall.
In many ways, any rational person can see it makes complete sense to build a massive wall to avoid being flooded by the seas and virtually invaded by millions of refugees from inundated nations. It’s just basic survival, surely?
But this extreme xenophobic fear of being overrun by ‘the Others’ has rippling negative consequences for the country’s own citizens, as The Wall reveals to the reader bit by bit.
I read this novel in a single day and really enjoyed it. The writing is witty and uncomplicated and the future world quite plausible.
There was one element which had me scratching my head, though I eventually decided to run with it and just enjoy the book. Kavanagh, the main character, describes surviving lethal freezing temperatures on the Wall. It’s a significant focus during the first part of the book. And yet, we discover that climate change has made the sea levels rise around the world to the point that there are no beaches anywhere and dry land is hard to find. I’m no climate scientist, but my understanding is the sea levels rise because the polar ice melts. And the polar ice melts because the sea temperature increases, along with the atmospheric temperatures. So – less killing cold.
BUT just after I read this book I learned all about the polar vortex causing temperatures of below -35 degrees celsius in the U.S. A phenomenon believed to be caused by climate change. So really, anything is possible.
Just a note about the ending (don’t worry, no spoilers) – most of this book you can allow to wash over you (pun intended) and just enjoy. However, if you do that, the ending may seem abrupt and won’t make a lot of sense. I had to let the ending sit with me for a while. In the context of the whole premise, and as an allegory for national security, it became startlingly clear.
At that point, you might also want to go back and revisit the first page. In particular, this passage on the subject of the freedom of having no choice:
So it hits you as a package, the first time you go to the Wall, on the first day of your tour. You know that you are there for two years. You know that it’s basically the same everywhere, as far as geography goes, but that everything depends on what the people you will be serving with are like. You know that there’s nothing you can do about that. It is frightening but also in its way a little bit freeing. No choice – everything about the Wall means you have no choice.
Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of review. This post contains affiliate links.