John Lanchester’s visceral novel The Wall
John Lanchester’s novel The Wall portrays a dystopia that’s all too realisable
Reading the first couple of pages of John Lanchester’s new novel,
The Wall, you might find yourself wondering if he’s watched Game
of Thrones; or rather, worrying that he hasn’t. A new recruit is ushered, in darkness and cold, to a gargantuan wall that surrounds an unnamed country. He knows he has to be there for two years, during which he and his fellow “Defenders” must focus on nothing but protecting the wall from incursions from some mysterious group — called “The Others” — and surviving.
So far so Night’s Watch, but as the details start to appear through the mist, the premise of Lanchester’s novel emerges from the vagaries of fantastical allegory into something far more sinister. This is, in fact, Britain, but one whose global stance has descended into isolationist paranoia (though, of course, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean The Others aren’t out to get you). Meanwhile, the sea levels have risen so high the beaches have disappeared, and The Wall now traces a near-exact perimeter of the country. Is this a dystopian vision of our future? Or rather a very logical progression from the status quo?
The Wall, however, wears its polemic lightly: what we get instead is a gripping and gory novel about that first new recruit, Kavanagh, or “Chewy” as he is quickly nicknamed, as he acclimatises to life on patrol, befriends his fellow recruits, and starts to understand the visceral nature of the task they are being asked to perform. Lanchester writes lyrically about the attractions of camaraderie, and how they can teeter on conformity; he also, when he needs to, does a very absorbing fight scene, with the action reaching exhilarating heights in the final third of the book
(if the film or TV rights haven’t already been bought, consider this a tip-off).
But mostly what we’re left with is a question: how much of our humanity can we preserve once we accept a society driven by fear? We may not have to wait long to find out.
The Wall (Faber) is out on 17 January