The Wall – John Lanchester

Biased review alert! Well, maybe biased is a little strong, but I wanted to let you know this would always be right up my street. I rarely dislike fiction set in the near future, so in John Lanchester’s capable hands, it was more a question of just how much I would like this book.

The novel deals with The Wall, a border defence around the entire coastline of the UK. Defenders stand watch for Others and prevent them from sneaking in by any means necessary.

Dystopia has recently picked up in popularity, so you might have some expectations based on the above synopsis. Convention is to spend 50-100 pages setting up a grotesque wasteland, then explore how we got there for 150-200 pages. The Wall doesn’t do that. Instead, it’s closer to metaphor than a vision of things to come. In fact, I’m not sure it specifies that it even is the future, maybe I just inferred that from the massive wall in the text that isn’t there in real life. Anyway, whether it’s the future or not, this novel will not give you a stark and vivid dystopian world. Rather, this is a human story set on and around The Wall.

It’s been a long time since I was so excited about a book that I couldn’t wait to get home and read, but this book did that. I was immersed.

The writing is perfectly paced for the drudgery of The Wall:

I finished my food and my hot drink and got up to go back to my post. At night, even the young and the fit stiffened up quickly, and I could feel how the cold had taken up residence in various parts of my body while I was sitting – my hips, my knees. Hifa and Shoona got up too and we split up. I went to the edge of the illuminated ground around my post, about fifty metres away, and jogged back and forwards  to the far edge for a few minutes, getting out of breath and warming up but being careful to stop short of sweating. At one end of my circuit, looking out to sea, I thought I saw something. A glimmer of light, was my first thought, out to sea.

John Lanchester, The Wall, p64

The above quote is from 64 pages in. 64 pages of seeing nothing and then a glimmer of light. Some might call that slow paced, but I disagree. The novel up to this point hasn’t been full of laborious world-building, it’s been character development and relationship establishment. Whilst communicating the cold life on The Wall, the narrator is giving us relatable, empathetic ways to survive. He makes friends, ponders his aloof boss, and daydreams about food.

Growing characters without shying away from the mundanity of The Wall does two compelling things:

First, when the action kicks in, it’s exciting. This is a novel of two halves, and the second is flat out. There’s tension, and there’s action. Don’t get me wrong, this is no thriller, but because of the set-up, a glimmer of light or a noise in the dark can be enough to get the adrenaline coursing.

Second, there’s an eerie dissonance between how quickly you’re trying, as a reader, to figure out the new world and how dull it is. It feels difficult and easy to grasp at the same time. This is what great dystopia is built on.

This book captured me. The writing, the concept, the story. All strong. This is not a life-changing experience. It’s not going to make anyone’s list of books to read before you die. But it is good fun, which is a serious achievement considering its dreary concept. A brilliantly balanced book.

For a slim volume, the novel is impressive. Direct and eventful, it lets you decide whether to read horrifying metaphors into it or coast along on the story. Both choices make for a great reading experience.

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