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John Lanchester’s ecological-dystopian tale about a barricaded Britain

John Lanchester. Photo/Alamy

The Wall may be speculative fiction, but it feel like it's just round the corner.

The United Kingdom has built a huge concrete wall right around its coastline. Young people are drafted to patrol it. The beaches have disappeared and things are very bloody cold.

Inside the wall lies civilisation. Us. Sure, everyone’s microchipped and reproduction is tightly controlled, but it’s better than whatever madness lies out there.

Speculative fiction? Maybe, but it’s starting to feel like we need a new term. This feels right around the corner.

John Lanchester comes to The Wall, his fifth novel, festooned with accolades for fiction and non-fiction, which includes two books about economics. There’s an economy to his writing here, too: small words, repetition and simple sentences with a natural drum. We open: “It’s cold on the Wall. That’s the first thing everybody tells you, and the first thing you notice when you’re sent there, and it’s the thing you think about all the time you’re on it, and it’s the thing you remember when you’re not there any more. It’s cold on the Wall.”

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Our narrator is Kavanagh, a young man who dreads the two years he must spend on the Wall, keeping watch in gruelling 12-hour shifts. Like all young people, he also feels permanently cut off from his parents – the generation who let a cataclysmic Change (of climate, presumably) flood much of the world.

I read with a shocking sense of fear and recognition, pulled along by the rhythm of Lanchester’s sentences and Kavanagh’s very human foibles.

The Wall is to keep out the desperate people whose homes have been flooded or scoured by drought, and who come on boats and rafts with whatever weapons they can find. They watch the Wall, they wait and they strategise. Mostly, they get blown to pieces.

I was reminded, often, of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (the books that spawned Game of Thrones) in which the Night’s Watch patrols a looming wall of ice. I thought also of The Passage – Justin Cronin’s terrifying vampire epic – where protecting the perimeter, year after blazingly dull year, is all. The trick to these stories is they let the protagonists literally sit on the fence, confronting at once the wild, the other, while reflecting on the schisms of the “civilised” society within.

And, of course, the thing about any big eff-off wall is that you just know the wild things are going to get through. Build it and they will come.

THE WALL, by John Lanchester (Allen & Unwin, $29.99)

This article was first published in the March 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.