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The Wall - A Novel

The Wall - A Novel by John Lanchester

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By John Lanchester

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Ravaged by the Change, an island nation in a time very like our own has built the Wall-an enormous concrete barrier around its entire coastline.

Joseph Kavanagh, a new Defender, has one task: to protect his section of the Wall from the Others, the desperate souls who are trapped amid the rising seas outside and are a constant threat.

Failure will result in death or a fate perhaps worse: being put to sea and made an Other himself.

Beset by cold, loneliness, and fear, Kavanagh tries to fulfill his duties to his demanding Captain and Sergeant, even as he grows closer to his fellow Defenders.

A dark part of him wonders whether it would be interesting if something did happen, if they came, if he had to fight for his life…

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10 Sep 2019


The Wall is set in a dystopian future in which climate change has led to a rise in sea level resulting in large areas of land being flooded and existing coastline being inundated so that there are no longer any beaches. They have been replaced by the Wall - a defence both against the sea and against immigrants – the Others. All young people in Britain have to serve two years’ national service as Defenders on the Wall.

Kavanagh, the protagonist, is beginning his time on the Wall at the start of the novel. He has to learn to cope with the cold, long periods of boredom and the constant threat of attack by the Others. But he also comes to appreciate the spirit of camaraderie which grows up amongst the young people serving their time. His descriptions of life on the Wall are bleak but also occasionally humorous. So life goes on until the day when a momentous event changes everything for Kavanagh and his group of Defenders. At the end of the novel, Kavanagh and his girlfriend are left in a place of safety but of suspended animation. It’s either a rather unsatisfactory ending or possibly left open for a sequel.

The novel draws a picture of a fractured society where the relationship between generations has broken down because the current young generation blame their parents’ generation for the dire state of the planet and the ‘olds’ are full of guilt for the disaster that is their responsibility; and few people are ‘Breeders’ - because why have children when the world is in such chaos? The feared Others are merely desperate people who have no access to land – either because their own land has been flooded or because they have been put out to sea as a punishment. This is the current migrant crisis meets Brexit and it depicts a society concerned only with its own survival and with no human feeling for those who are outsiders. Far from being rescued, the migrants are actively pursued and attacked. If they do manage to breach the defences, they are likely to end up as ‘Help’ – basically state-owned slaves.

The novel sets up an interesting scenario, at least some of which is frighteningly close to home but the characters feel somewhat under-developed. It is rather one-dimensional, concentrating just on the Defenders’ generation. I would have liked to have seen more insight into the rest of the society, which would have made it a richer story. But, having said that, it’s a real page-turner and I did enjoy it.

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