The first thing we learn about the wall is that it is cold. Not just your everyday run of the mill cold. The cold that makes you wish you were dead, or at least somewhere else. The second thing we find out is that when you’re sent to the wall for your tour, it will last two years. These two points never change, but the men who you will be on tour with do. The obvious questions spring to mind, why was the wall built, what has happened to the rest of the world. The world in which Lanchester has placed this narrative is clouded with ambiguity. The reader continually hears about “the change” and “the others”. Some of the narrative can be pieced together. There has been a change, seemingly to the climate and Britain has been walled off from the rest of the world. This wall must be defended twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week from “the others”. This is the definition used to describe everybody on the other side of the wall. The penalty for anybody making it over the wall is horrific and simple. For every person who makes it over the wall one defender is put to sea, pretty much a slow death sentence. This almost reminded me of decimation in the Roman Legions.
Lanchester seems to be having a go at multiple targets. Climate change, refugees, Brexit, even classism. We are never told just how far into the future this novel is set, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to see a similar future to this one unfolding. Granted it may be quite a way down the track but a possibility, perhaps. Is this book meant as a portent, a warning of what may come to pass, a future whose path we may have already started irrevocably down?
Lanchester does a wonderful job of letting the reader experience the wall through the eyes of the protagonist Kavanagh. So many feelings are experienced, both mental and physical, by Kavanagh when he first takes his place on the wall. Intense cold, fear, anxiety and ultimately boredom. The reader almost feels that he has been condemned to two years on the wall along with Kavanagh.
Even though I enjoyed this book, it never really rose to the heights that I thought it would. It’s an entertaining novel and I particularly enjoyed the ending. Perhaps it may have more of an impact for British readers. However, I think the issues that Lanchester is targeting unfortunately exist in many places. For me, a good book, but far from essential reading. 3.5 stars.
John Lanchester is the author of four novels and three books of non-fiction. He was born in Germany and moved to Hong Kong. He studied in UK. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and was awarded the 2008 E.M. Forster Award. He lives in London.
There is an interview with Lanchester talking about The Wall and the future here - https://inews.co.uk/culture/books/john-lanchester-dystopian-novel-the-wall-interview/