Chair of the 2019 Booker Prize judges, Peter Florence, said:
“If you only read one book this year, make a leap. Read all 13 of these. There are Nobel candidates and debutants on this list. There are no favourites; they are all credible winners. They imagine our world, familiar from news cycle disaster and grievance, with wild humour, deep insight and a keen humanity. These writers offer joy and hope. They celebrate the rich complexity of English as a global language. They are exacting, enlightening and entertaining. Really – read all of them.”
Like most of its literary precursors, “The Wall” opens long after the Change, which allows Lanchester to present his society as a given, without having to worry about the details of the transition — a luxury granted to novelists, if not politicians. The catastrophe evidently happened over a short period of time, creating a historical dividing line as decisive as the Wall itself... The result marks a step forward for Lanchester, a formidably intelligent author who has sometimes stumbled over his undeniable gifts.,,The novel gathers momentum as it goes, and few readers will stop until they reach its final page. Early in the book, Lanchester toys with the idea of “concrete poetry,” in which a poem is typeset to look like its subject, like a house or a Christmas tree. In its closing lines, like the album of the same name, the novel doubles back on itself to take the shape of the Wall — but it lives most vividly in the places where its meticulous structure breaks down. Lanchester constructs a more elegant wall in prose than any politician could in concrete, but the limits that it imposes on itself are still barriers, no matter how artistically designed.
The best bits are very good indeed; but it can seem as if the best parts are the least expected parts... The opening of the novel is a masterclass in making the dull interesting... It is difficult to review this book in that there is a major change two-thirds of the way through... In the later parts, the allegory is less easy to decipher or decode. It becomes almost mystical and is left beautifully unresolved.
a little too close for comfort... The true horror of life on The Wall lies in its monotony; the most barbaric, brutal moments become oddly refreshing... The Wall is an ambitious book, and thorough, even though it’s painting a broad dystopia... The lighter, livelier parts of the story throw the horror into sharp relief – but there simply aren’t enough of them. If the book was less hard-going, we might connect to the narrative more keenly, and want to strive for change.
Lanchester’s talents as a novelist – his judicious blending of realism and metaphor, his remarkable ability to render tedium gripping, and his mastery of narrative tension – have been put to estimable use. The result is a novel that ranks alongside Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and the oeuvre of Kim Stanley Robinson as a fictional meditation on what climate change may mean for the planet. Even if its value as a work of prophecy is as yet unknowable, it will certainly provide future generations with a mirror held up to the anxieties and forebodings of the early 21st century.
It is very good: a well-structured, well-paced story with a narrative drive that keeps you going through the monotony of life on the Wall. It does, though, fall a concrete slab or two short in terms of its ambition, both intellectually and imaginatively.
It doesn't stretch or challenge the reader or use the future as a device to introduce any alarmingly new social concepts (beyond the idea of the devastating effects of global warming, evidence of which is already just a Google click away).
In fact, I suspect if John Lanchester were to use his learned, measured, insightful mind to produce a non-fiction book about climate change, it would be a far more distressing peek into the future than his latest novel.
So, discuss: Brexit isolationist parable? Trump-era migration satire? Dire climate-change pronouncement? Military-flavoured Godot? Whatever your read on The Wall’s initial chapters, this part of the novel is visibly tuned to invite allegorical speculation. So it is at least surprising when Lanchester hits the midpoint and turns it into an old-school young-adult adventure story, whisking Kavanagh and the reader away from Fortress Britain before any of the metaphorical blows can really land... leaving the whole affair as a serviceable but slightly baffling experiment, never much more than the sum of vaguely familiar parts
The Wall, however, wears its polemic lightly: what we get instead is a gripping and gory novel about that first new recruit, Kavanagh, or 'Chewy' as he is quickly nicknamed, as he acclimatises to life on patrol, befriends his fellow recruits, and starts to understand the visceral nature of the task they are being asked to perform.
Lanchester writes lyrically about the attractions of camaraderie, and how they can teeter on conformity; he also, when he needs to, does a very absorbing fight scene, with the action reaching exhilarating heights in the final third of the book (if the film or TV rights haven’t already been bought, consider this a tip-off).
One of the things Lanchester is brilliant at, both in novels such as Capital (2012) and especially in his journalism and nonfiction, is simply explaining stuff. He is adept at breaking down complex concepts into accessible language peppered with handy little reminders – like a leather-jacketed professor taking a seminar in the pub... So why, then, is The Wall a little unsatisfying? One problem is that it’s not nearly strange enough – the ambient unease rarely trickles down to a human level... We’re rather blessed at this moment with prophets of dystopia: George Saunders, Margaret Atwood, Charlie Brooker, Naomi Alderman, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. The Wall feels a bit basic by comparison.
No doubt Lanchester’s point is that politicians are always capable, for their own ends, of stoking fear of immigrants to such a degree that the populace will happily consent to acts of gross national self-harm in the name of keeping borders secure.
It’s a very enjoyable read, but until we reach the time when Lanchester can say “I told you so” or “whoops, I was wrong”, we can only partially judge this novel’s worth.
The Wall is a cracking adventure and an astute political fable... The writing is spare, but so are the characterisations, even Kavanagh’s... He is a versatile writer... The transparency of the book’s themes and style suggests that it is quite possible that he has deliberately chosen in The Wall to write a young adult novel rather than a complex literary fiction. This, anyway, is what he has done, and it is a very good one. Every secondary school library in the country needs to order a copy.
Lanchester is an enviably versatile writer with Catholic tastes. He is a keen video-gamer, and a fan of fantasy and science-fiction writing (one of the inspirations here might be the Wall of Westeros: he has outed himself as a Game of Thrones addict in the past), but his previous novels have been, for the most part, confined to the real world of literary fiction... The Wall is quite different from anything he has written before and it is, I think, his best novel — though it has none of the sentence-by-sentence virtuosity of his earlier works.
Even so, Lanchester’s fictional world is intelligently conceived and dourly impressive. There is the fear and mind-bending boredom of the long shifts (“Always water, sky, wind, cold, and of course concrete”) in which eating a “power bar” counts as a significant event.
Lanchester’s description of what it is like to be in a military unit feels well thought out and convincing. The action scenes, when they come, ring true in a downbeat fashion, as does the resentment of the younger generation towards their parents, on whose watch the Change took place.
The Wall certainly sticks in the mind: it is a resonant addition, from out of left field, to the growing body of Brexit literature.
As the novel segues into a survivalist sea story that never quite lives up to the promise of the first two-thirds, it hits you that Lanchester has more or less inverted the premise of last year’s Booker-shortlisted Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s speculative fantasy about borderless migration, in which black portals mysteriously open up around the globe. The Wall is the bleaker book, yet it’s infinitely less solemn, in part because of its chatty, pithy voice, recognisable from Lanchester’s journalism. ‘When bullets come close, the noise they make as they go past changes from a zing to a crack,’ Kavanagh says, sounding very like his author. While Lanchester’s familiar, informative tone didn’t always meet the demands of Capital, a multi-character ensemble piece, it’s an asset here, in part precisely because it’s comically at odds with what’s being described. But look again at the paragraph quoted above: to whom exactly is Kavanagh explaining how his world works? It’s a question that recurs as the novel progresses. Lanchester provides a solution, folded into an elegant sign-off, but it feels a bit of a cop-out in view of the grim future he’s outlined. Then again, if The Wall is even half right, maybe artistic quandaries are going to be the only type we can reasonably expect novelists to solve.
January is obviously far too early to call a book of the year but, come December 2019, I reckon I'll still be raving about this one. Set in the very near future it is narrated by a young man named Kavanaugh and begins just as he is starting a two year stretch patrolling the Wall, a 10,000km structure which "protects" the UK against Others. The best thing that can happen to Kavanaugh is that he does his stint, survives and then gets off the Wall and never has to go back.