A woman walks out of Penrith and disappears into the surrounding fells to live with a group of outlaw women living a self-sufficient lifestyle in an old farm, called Carhullan. In contrast to the Authority, these women are markedly competent. But the situation is complex.
On arriving at Carhullan, our protagonist is subject to quite extreme cult-like de-personalisation techniques, followed by lovey-dovey inclusion: classic brainwashing of an already vulnerable mind. From then on, therefore, she is a very unreliable narrator.
Carhullan reminded me of Efrafa in Watership Down, and Jackie Nixon the leader reminded me of General Woundwort. It's an effective society, but I think it is one which has already gone wrong before the story begins. During the story it gets worse, as Jackie goes insane.
At first I was very annoyed with the book, like some readers of Harry Potter I was 'What do you mean, presenting this as a Utopia, it's clearly fucked up!' Then I realised that this surely was the point, as it must be in Potter.
On the surface this is a lesbian feminist wholefood collective. One scratch under the surface the ostensible values of this book are conservative: reminiscent of Heinlein, or perhaps Cecelia Holland (libertarian feminist SF Floating Worlds - recommended). But what is under that?
Towards the end of the book, Jackie announces that secret government broadcasts, which she alone has managed to intercept, tell her the farm is about to be attacked by the Authority. Therefore they have to disband the farm, abandon subsistence, and turn into a guerilla army. So about fifty competent women take on the incompetent masculine State. I was wondering how Sarah Hall was going to resolve the situation.
Would the values and approach of Carhullan be endorsed or undermined? Would Jackie be proved right, and all her ruthlessness (up to murdering dissidents) be justified? Or would the government threat be proved delusional: the personal power which allowed her to establish the farm, also tearing it apart for no reason?
But this was not resolved. The story ends on perhaps a note of optimism. Jackie's quixotic assault on the Authority obviously fails, but it may have demonstrated to the serfs that revolt is possible. The idea of the farm might be kept alive. Or it might be that there is no future. This reminds me of 1984 'If there is any hope it is with the proles'.
ETA - Verdict: Easy and quick to read because so well written. Emotionally engaging, although bits upset me so much I had to put the book aside occasionally. Rushed conclusion, and unresolved ambiguity of values, which you may or may not like. More complex than it superficially appears. A sophisticated SF story, in the sense that the author is developing or challenging established SF ideas.