Walls are on the global consciousness at the moment. After the heady days of the late 1980s when walls were being torn down it seems that all the talk at the moment is about whether we should be putting them up. The wall that surrounds Great Britain in John Lanchester’s dystopia serves a dual purpose. Originally built to protect the landscape from rising sea levels it is also now used as way to keep out the rest of the world. So that in one concrete metaphor Lanchester manages to capture the impacts of climate change, global economic stagnation and Brexit.
When the book opens Joseph Kavanagh is just starting his time on the Wall. No one wants to be on the wall so every young adult (except for the “Elites”) has to take their turn – a two year rotation of twelve hour shifts. The squads on the Wall are trained to keep out the Others, the unseen mass of refugees seeking a new life in Britain. Their job involves shoot to kill. Any unit that fails to keep Others out are exiled by being put to sea. Those Others that do get through the wall become government appointed slaves (known as Help).
There is plenty of allegory to chew on here. Lanchester, who has written novels and non-fiction about the global financial crisis, is interested in the intergenerational inequities inherent in climate change. A world in which children bear the responsibility to cope with the problems that their parents created essentially through their lassitude and greed. As in many similar dystopian tales (from 1984 onwards) he is also interested in the dehumanisation of the enemy and the boosting of national pride to justify any action.
While it is engagingly written, the literary landscape is crowded at the moment with this type of dystopian allegory and in that respect The Wall does little to stand out. The characters are fairly standard military dystopian fare (including the authoritarian Captain known as the Sarge) but with a uniquely British twist (Kavanagh’s platoon has a tea lady who rides a bike up and down the Wall delivering tea). While there are some surprises, the plot follows some very familiar beats and locations (including at one point an abandoned oil rig, a perrenial post-apocalyptic favourite).
Lanchester provides no answers here, just a downbeat, but altogether possible view of the future. All based on the realisation that the world possibly is going to hell in a handbasket and the construction of walls is probably not a solution to anything much except maybe keeping rising sea levels out of our basements.