The Wall by John Lanchester
The Wall by John Lanchester

“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.”

The Wall by John Lanchester

It’s cold on the wall. No, I mean really cold. Really!

Climate change has taken its toll and reduced the Earth to a handful of inhabitable landmasses. Swamped by rising waters, Great Britain has surrounded itself with an impenetrable concrete wall to protect itself from both the sea and the threat of dangerous invaders.

Joseph Kavanagh is one of thousands of conscripts, enlisted to defend the wall against breaches from the “Others”. If they succeed, maybe they can go on to enjoy the rest of their lives in relative peace, but if they fail they will be set to sea to survive in a world of few resources and dangerous foes.

The Others are a constant threat to civilised society, used as a wedge by politicians to encourage Wall’s reluctant Defenders to train harder and fight better.

Despite the collapse of society, the food rationing, and the reduced birth rate, Kavanaugh aspires for more. It’s all very reminiscent of World War Two era Britain. He imagines that one day he will join the ranks of the “Elite” who never do time on the Wall, never go hungry, and travel in luxury.

The rear cover of the book reads, “Unputdownable. It’s 1984 for our times.” Can it meet the heady heights of Orwell’s legacy? It’s dystopian fiction time again! How does The Wall stack up against some of the classics touted on the book’s cover? Is The Wall really a modern day 1984?

Building the Wall

The Great Britain of Lanchester’s novel is an island nation surrounded by an impenetrable sea wall designed to keep climate change at bay. Britain is now isolated, forced to defend itself against the continual threat of outsiders looking for safety. The parallels to the current immigration debate and risks of right wing nationalism are clear, but the book rarely does anything to develop them beyond the surface argument.

Lanchester’s Britain feels both familiar and anemic; there’s a lack of the strange present in other novels in the genre that set your jaw on edge or leave that sense of coldness in the pit of your stomach. The world of The Wall, instead of being scary, feels rather parochial and sterile. Away from The Wall, life doesn’t seem all that bad, and even on The Wall itself, where there should be the greatest threat, there is rarely any real danger.

This is not 1984

There are few clearer signs of weak dystopian novels than those which uses generic nouns in order to describe factions in the world. If a character refers to a climatic change in world order as “The Event” or the or to the bad guys as “Them”, I immediately switch off. The Wall has its own version of these in spades: the “Change”, the “Defenders”, the “Elite”, and the “Others”. Each are as non-descript as the previous and do nothing to add any depth to the world.

They drum that into you: discipline trumps courage. In a fight, the people who win are the ones who do what they’re told. It’s not like it is in films. Don’t be brave, just do what you’re told.

The Wall

There are allusions to modern politics here, the politician, out of his depth — excuse the pun — and responsible for a world that he doesn’t fully understand, prepared to use nationalist language to maintain a fragile order. Then there’s the obvious climate change debate, but this is barely explored beyond the fact that the worst has already happened. There’s the immigration debate, which is almost more significant than the climate threat, but even this feels glazed over.

The potential of The Wall book is lost in its telling. The title alone raises allusions to Trump’s “America First” policies, about national isolationism, about immigration, but the story rarely goes there and certainly never fully develops any of these ideas.

A wall of text

Lanchester writes in simple, quick flowing prose, but unlike others known for this style, this is less Steinbeck and more youth fiction. The Wall reads like a children’s novel, until the protagonist shouts “fuck” at one point and then the head of a bad guy pops off into a bloody pulp. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with simple language, but the result here is that the book lacks any descriptive depth resulting in the whole world feeling bland.

The first two chapter spend an awful lot of time explaining that “It’s cold on the wall.” Eventually reaching the point where the narrator, our intrepid Kavanaugh, apparently running low on adjectives, to describe the frigid temperature, resorts to adjusting positioning the text on the page to further wring descriptive potential out of The Wall.

I appreciate that the story is narrated in the first person, but I was really pulled out of the the story when Kavanaugh starts literally managing the layout of the text on the page. There’s even an entire paragraph consisting of the word “concrete”, see below:

Are those throw cushions?

Despite the complaints of the main characters, they barely spending any time on The Wall itself. Instead they’re shifted around between their defensive positions, to weeks of training, to holiday periods. There are deaths, yes, but none of the threat. If this is 1984, it’s the pink fluffy cushion version and offers little of the genuine insight or political persuasion that Orwell’s novel provides.

The part of the story which began to show real potential is when Kavanaugh travels home to spend his first holiday. His parents, feeling the weight of guilt and responsibility at bringing a child in a world which their generation allowed to fail so spectacularly is really interesting, but as with most of the themes in this book, it’s barely approached.

I’d been brought up not to think about the Others in terms of where they came from or who they were, to ignore all that—they were just Others. But maybe, now that I was one of them, they weren’t Others anymore? If I was an Other and they were Others perhaps none of us were Others but instead we were a new Us. It was confusing.

The Wall is a quick read, and it certainly picks up in the last couple of chapters, but overall this is a morose, grey story which fails to build anything approaching an interesting world. I’m a fan of this genre but there’s simply not enough here outside of the surface allegory to sustain interest.

Likewise, the main characters are all but loose brushstrokes. In particular, the characters of Hifa, Kavanaghs love interested, and the Sergeant, a reformed Other, who show so much potential are poorly drawn. Kavanaghs platoon feels more like a group of teenagers on summer holiday than a hardened band of soldiers.

If Orwell’s 1984 is the Lego Technic Millennium Falcon, The Wall is a Duplo farm house. The basic building blocks are there, but the story, world, themes and characters are ultimately unsatisfying and without depth. So, should you read The Wall? Well, with novels like Margaret Atwood’s, The Testaments, having been recently released, your time and money is much better spent elsewhere. Or you could go and watch Water World.

Oh, and did you know, it’s cold on The Wall?

What are you thinking?