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In Dystopian Future, 'Daughters' Fight Back

Sarah Hall's second novel, <em>The Electric Michelangelo,</em> was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.
Sarah Hall's second novel, <em>The Electric Michelangelo,</em> was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.

I am aware that as a human being, and especially as a woman, I am supposed to like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. But when I read her 1985 novel of women living in a repressive theocratic regime, forced into either celibacy or involuntary breeding, all I could think was, "OK, so when do these women start stabbing people?" I like a good dystopia as much as anyone, but I prefer mine to come with an organized resistance army.

British novelist and poet Sarah Hall's Daughters of the North invites comparisons to The Handmaid's Tale, as well as to P.D. James' The Children of Men. It's set in near-future England, where a series of environmental disasters caused by global warming have left food and resources so scarce that all women are fitted with IUDs. Only those selected in a lottery are allowed to become pregnant. Our narrator leaves her official zone and walks up to Carhullan in the north Lake District, where a group of women inhabit a self-sustaining farm. There she becomes what the Authority calls an "Unofficial" and drops her name, to be known from now on only as "Sister."

It's not exactly the hippie commune you might expect. It's run by the charismatic, but tyrannical Jackie Nixon, who's as concerned about raising an army as raising crops. "We don't believe we can govern better," Jackie says, explaining the urgency for a female uprising, "and until we believe this, we never will. It's time for a new society."

Jackie is not infallible, and her methods in pursuit of the greater good are not always kind. But that is what makes Daughters of the North a novel, not an allegory. Hall has created a complex, tight work about hope springing out of resistance.

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