The wall : a novel

by John Lanchester

Hardcover, 2019




New York : W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.


John Lanchester's long-awaited new novel - an hypnotic dystopian novel exploring the most compelling issues of our time.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
The Wall is John Lanchester’s fifth novel, and I would happily place three of the previous ones (The Debt to Pleasure, Fragrant Harbour, and Capital), all of which are completely different in style and content to each other, within my personal top fifty books. Given that since I started formally listing the books I read I have now gone past 4,500, that is a significant endorsement. Oddly, however, I never managed to finish the other one, Mr Phillips, although I know that many critics were praised it highly.)

I was, therefore, eagerly awaiting John Lanchester’s latest novel, and made a point of stopping off at Daunt Books to buy it on the day of publication. Perhaps the weight of all that anticipation boosted my expectations a little too high. The Wall is certainly well written, and features strong, plausible characters and a convincing plot. Something, however, seemed to be missing, and despite having looked forward to reading it, I completely failed to develop any genuine enthusiasm for it.

Lanchester’s literary flexibility is considerable, and with this book he broaches the dystopian novel. The Wall is set in a near, but unspecified, post-Brexit future in which accelerated global warming has caused significant rises in the world’s oceans. This has, in turn, led to a realignment of international relations, with huge swathes of the world now uninhabitable. Britain has closed in on itself, almost literally, and the whole outline of its shore is now protected by a substantial wall.

The Wall is permanently patrolled, to prevent both illegal immigration or piratical raids by ‘The Others’, the displaced people fleeing economic or climatic turmoil elsewhere. All British citizens have to complete a spell of national service during which most of them spend two years serving as guards on the wall. The novel follows Kavanagh, who is just commencing his term on the wall.

Through Kavanagh’s experiences, we quickly learn that life on the wall is utterly miserable. The work is tedious, and repetitive, and the guards are permanently cold. Indeed, for someone who is normally such a stylish writer, Lanchester labours the tedium too heavily, to the extent that reading the book I felt I knew much of the tedium that Kavanagh was experiencing. It seemed to me as if, having expended so much mental energy to create a convincing setting (and it is convincing), Lanchester nothing left in the tank from which to render an engaging plot or characters. Somehow this novel never managed to get out of its lower gears, and failed to repay the reader’s mental investment.
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LibraryThing member seitherin
Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book for review.

A post apocalyptic dystopia in which nothing much happens even when something happens. This is a small, intimate story of one man's life encompassing a very short period of time. Well written and easy to read.
LibraryThing member SandDune
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 anymore. It's cold on the Wall.

When Kavanagh arrives at the Wall for the start of his two year posting all he can think of is counting down the 730 days until he is free to live out the rest of his life. But there is no escaping the two years on the Wall - all citizens, men and women, must serve their two years as Defenders on the Wall to keep out the Others. It's a succession of twelve hour guard duties, with the concrete and sea and cold, waiting for the attack which might never come. Or then again it just might ... And at times the cold is cold enough to kill...

But it gradually becomes apparent that this is not the far north, it's a vision of the future of Britain. It's a changed Britain, but a very recognisable one. A country where you can still go camping in the Lake District for a holiday, and where people still commute into London by train. But it's a Britain that is totally surrounded by the Wall...

This dystopian vision of the future was more chilling for being more believable than is usually the case with dystopian fiction. Take some of the more extreme views regarding Brexit, and mix in the effect of climate change and mass migration, and you end up with the Wall. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member sturlington
In a very different kind of novel from his previous books, Lanchester envisions a near future world devastated by rising oceans from climate change, in which England has literally walled itself off from the rest of the world and their refugees. Warning alarms about the future we are making for ourselves combine with commentary on current attitudes toward immigrants, a la Brexit and Trump's wall. For the most part, I found this compelling but bleak writing. The point-of-view character and the friends he makes among the Defenders on the Wall came across as very average people doing the best they can in extreme times, and I particularly appreciated the point made about the huge gap of anger and resentment between the generation living with the effects of climate change and the one they perceived as having done nothing to stop it. This really could be our future. I did feel that this novel was in some ways allegorical, and that didn't work as well for me, particularly the ending, which I didn't quite parse in the allegorical sense.… (more)
LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
The Wall is a dystopian novel about building a wall to keep those inside the wall safe. Surrounding the wall is water. There are Others drifting at sea that are a threat to those inside the wall. The main character is a Defender of the wall and these 288 pages are his journey. The premise is quite believable that climate change has cause water to rise eliminating 90% of humans. I wanted Kavanagh, our protagonist, to have a bit more passion in regards to the wall (either hating it or loving it). He just wants to not defend it because it's a job that sucks. In spite of Kavanagh's lack of caring, I very much enjoyed The Wall. It certainly tells a great story of survival and the human spirit. The author weaves the tale in such a way, that I was gripped without sitting on the edge of my seat. I just wanted to see how things would go and enjoyed his use of language and descriptions.… (more)
LibraryThing member kgramer
This scenario is way too believable although I hope it's not the future for my children. I loved that the main character was no martyr - he was self-aware and offered moments of humor in a desperate situation.
LibraryThing member ArtRodrigues
I am not usually a fan of dystopian type fiction. But this book was an exception. I couldn't put it down. It is well written, and the story flows through the characters nicely. I will not try to describe the narrative other than to say that it involves a country in the not to distant future that is completely surrounded by a mammoth guarded wall. The guards, all drafted young persons who hate their job, are under orders to shoot to kill any of "the others" who might try to cross the wall.… (more)
LibraryThing member Carmenere
Something about my third read from the Booker long list compelled me to finish it. In a dystopian world where "The Change" has brought guilt to the older generation and where beaches have ceased to exist and only the "Elites" may travel by airplane, Kavanaugh is drafted to serve two years defending "The Wall" from "The Others". Here, he becomes acquainted with other members of society, "The Breeders" and "Help". The punishment is quite severe for Defenders who are on duty when a breach of the Wall occurs.
The message, in the first section, is timely, clear and Green New Dealish but in subsequent sections the message becomes lost.
I credit Lanchester's rhythmic prose for marching me to the conclusion which begs for The Wall II.
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LibraryThing member auntmarge64
It's always a toss-up whether post-apocalyptic/dystopian novels will be successful at connecting with the reader's emotions. The best of them can do this, whatever the context. Unfortunately, "The Wall" misses the mark. It has an interesting premise, but the reader is never really engaged or given enough information about the general circumstances to feel much towards the main character or to judge his perspective.

Kavanagh has reached the age at which every male and female serves two years as a guard on the cement barrier built around an island nation inundated by rising oceans, trying to keep out everyone else (The Others). The island appears to be England, with the station Kavanagh serves at called Ilfracombe, which today is a town on the north Devonshire coast. Hundreds of thousands serve at any one time around the perimeter of the country. It's a lonely, desolate job, with 12-hour shifts and constant cold, boredom, and fear. "Others" who manage to get past the Wall are usually caught quickly because they aren't chipped and are easily identified. But for every Other who makes it and isn't caught, a guard is expelled in a boat to become an Other. Kavanagh makes friends with the guards in his unit, with whom he sometimes spends his holidays (one free week each month or so), and he begins a tentative romance with one of them. The parents of this generation are routinely despised, at best, for it was on their watch that the world fell apart, and yet they elected to bring children into this new world. On the other hand, Breeders, couples who decide to get pregnant, are given special privileges so that the country won't completely fail and the Wall will always have enough guards.

There are the makings here for a fantastic story, but it just doesn't gel. The focus is on 1) the misery of the job, 2) the fear that one will become an Other or die if there is an attack, and 3) the misery of the job (yup, the book dwells on it that much). Very little historical context is given. Kavanagh clearly knows how his country works, what's happening around the world, and what the actual apocalypse was. He just doesn't bring it up in telling his story. I would have liked an explanation of how the oceans could have risen an implied minimum of 15 or 20 feet in one generation. The older members of the society still watch TV and are addicted to movies and documentaries about how their lives were "before" (especially anything with scenes of beaches, which have been made impossible by the Wall). Transportation, weapons, clothing - all seems pretty much from our today. Food is limited by what currently grows in season. Innovation has largely stopped. In other ways, little has changed: the wealthy still find ways to live in luxury, paying for Help (captured Others who have chosen to become life-long servants rather than be sent back to the sea) and flying off to places around the world as they will. In other words, this is not civilization building.

So, give it a go if you enjoy this genre, but you've been warned: you might find it wanting.
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LibraryThing member chrisblocker
[Epic movie trailer voice] Once there was a world. A world where great lands divided the seas. A world where one could live and die without ever having seen the ocean.
That world is gone. Humanity waged war on the oceans... and it lost.

In a last ditch effort to save what precious little they have left, an entire nation has constructed a wall. A wall that keeps desperate marauders out. A wall that keeps a nation in.
Waterworld, there was... The Wall.

This film is not yet rated.

In this prequel to the 1995 film Waterworld, the water is rising, land masses are shrinking, and a technologically advanced island nation has built a wall. If only a big giant wall meant to keep outsiders on the outside had some real-world application. Really, you can quickly forget the connection between this book and Trump's wall. What you cannot unsee is the birth of Waterworld.

My biggest complaint about this book is simply that a well-meaning, relevant agenda does not make up for a story that is not compelling. The plot is thin—there's the part of the book on the wall; then there's the part off on the wall. The world-building lacks originality—it's 50% of our modern world; 50% of a post-apocalyptic water world; with the addition of a wall. And the characters do absolutely nothing to make me care.

I'm beginning to wonder why I gave this novel three stars. Maybe because I'm very reserved with one and two star ratings. A book has to be terrible to receive either from me, and though The Wall bordered this territory, I can say it had some redeeming qualities. Like that scene with the pirates—that was riveting and heartbreaking. What else? There was that concrete poem: concrete concrete concrete concrete concrete
concrete concrete concrete concrete concrete
concrete concrete concrete concrete concrete
concrete concrete concrete concrete concrete
concrete concrete concrete concrete concrete
concrete concrete concrete concrete concrete
I liked that part. And there was the pirate scene.

Hopefully my feelings regarding Waterworld have not been construed by my tongue-in-cheek approach to The Wall. I'm that one guy who has found memories of the box office flop. I was also fifteen or sixteen when I saw it. Maybe if I'd read The Wall when I was that age, I'd have found it profound and thrilling.

Every Booker Prize long list has its one or two books that makes you wonder, “Why on earth was that selected?” We readers don't always agree on what those books are, but there's often some consensus. This is only the second book from this year's long list I've read so far, and I truly hope that after I finish the remaining eleven, I can say this was the worst of the lot.… (more)
LibraryThing member camharlow2
A chilling, dystopian novel that might be seen as a reflection of the state in Britain today. It is set in the not too distant future sees Britain with a wall built around the whole of its coastline. An unspecified ecological disaster has altered the climate and raised sea levels considerably so that there are no beaches in existence. Lanchester coldly describes the physically and mentally numbing duties of the guards, The Defenders, on The Wall when most young people are conscripted for a two year period. The young resent their elders for spoiling and limiting their futures and for bequeathing them a poorer and more uncertain future. The Others, people from outside Britain, are forever trying to gain access over The Wall and The Defenders are compelled to repel them, on pain of being set adrift at sea if they fail in their defence. Lanchester vividly captures the bleakness of The Defenders’ lives and prospects, but also of those of The Others as they battle for survival in a compelling story.… (more)
LibraryThing member akblanchard
After ecological disaster makes much of the earth uninhabitable, a massive wall is built around an unnamed island nation (most likely England) to keep people from devastated areas, known as the Others, out of civilization. Kavanaugh, the narrator, is serving his required two-year stint defending The Wall. The Others constantly try to breach the Wall, and it is Kavanaugh and his comrades' duty to keep them out. If the Defenders fail, they will be sent out to sea to become Others themselves.

John Lanchester's dystopian novel, The Wall, is vivid and fast-paced; you could even call it a page-turner. Yet I had a hard time finishing it, I think because the reality it depicts is not so far away from our own. Also, the narrative loses steam in the final section, in which Kavanaugh and his lover Hifa predictably become Others. Still, I recommend this book to those interested in "cli-fi" fiction.
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LibraryThing member Opinionated
John Lanchester has some points he wants to make, and he makes them with all the finesse of a drunkard with a sledgehammer. He wants our generation to think about the effects our actions, or lack of actions, will have on our children. He wants us to think of the dystopian world our children might have to face if we continue to let sea levels rise, to let climate catastrophe march ahead, to let populist politicians promulgate the politics of us vs them, and blaming the "other", when unity is needed more than ever. He wants us to know that the next generation will hate us if we just let this happen

This is an angry book, by an angry author, but in an innocuous disguise. Because the structure and the storyline are deceptively simple; at some point in the near future, an unnamed island nation, but undoubtedly Britain, has built a wall around the entire coastline, to keep out the advancing waters and to keep out the people from the many parts of the world that are already under water. Every 200 meters, a defender is posted, who's job is simple; kill anyone, any of "The Others" who tries to get over the wall. Fail to do this and the consequences are simple too; if you are not killed in the attack, and the "Other" makes it over the wall, you're put out to sea yourself, becoming an "Other".

Our protaganist, Kavanagh, arrives at The Wall, to start his 2 year tour of duty defending his 200 meters. Virtually everyone, male or female, in this dystopian world, has to do this - although it is implied that, inevitably, elites may be able to buy their way out it. Kavanagh is in many ways the classic alienated youth (his age is never really made clear) - but in this case, he has plenty to be alienated about. His generation despise their parents for, if not actively ruining the world, at least letting it happen on their watch. They also have no interest in parenting children - who would want to bring a child into such a horrible world? This despite the many privileges on offer for "breeding" - such as, not having to defend The Wall. How bad things are is implied rather than described, but certainly includes severe restriction of food and fuel, a much more extreme climate and the removal of private transport.

Kavanagh appears to have no interests and no aspirations, but he does have education. His only goal is to get through his 2 years on The Wall, which involve standing in the cold, with nothing to do but scan the waters for "Others" for 12 hours at a stretch. Will "Others" attack his stretch of Wall? Probably they won't but just maybe they will, with increasing desperation as the rest of the world becomes increasingly uninhabitable. He bonds with some of his squadmates, but his only goal is to get through his watch, and get off The Wall. Inevitably, or it would be a dull book, his initial fear, loathing, cold and boredom, starts to change as things start to happen

Has Lanchester taken some inspiration from Game of Thrones? Probably... the theme of standing in the cold on top of a Wall, trying to keep out "Others" is consistent with that. Has he even been inspired by Waterworld? Perhaps. But this is a very powerful book in its own right, an entirely plausible scenario, with appealing characters and deep morality. We care what happens to Kavanagh and his cohorts - much more than the world they live in ever does.

Very highly recommended, minus half a star for a deus ex machina moment which didn't work for me really
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LibraryThing member AAAO
of those Longlisted for the 2019 Booker I think this to be the prize worthiest. I do not praise it over Allah's praise of it, I think it to be and Allah is its ultimate judge.
LibraryThing member LovingLit
This book is not exactly challenging, but it does make for a good, solid read. The dystopia genre is one I am drawn to, but one that I have not read many great literary examples from. Although this book doesn't change that, it was an interesting take on future Britain, and it went places I didn't see coming.

The premise is that Britain has walled itself in from refugees and migrants, collectively termed "others". Each able citizen of Britain must do their 2 year stint guarding the wall, which involves a month-long cycle of two weeks on guard, one week off, and one week of training. The story starts with the main guy's first week on the wall, his acclimatisation to what is a dreary set of cycles of vigilance and basically just being cold. The story moves from the wall into the days off, as well the relationships formed between the guards. Beyond that would be telling!… (more)
LibraryThing member alanteder
Brexit meets Waterworld*
Review of the Audible Audio edition narrated by Will Poulter

This is more of a military survival story than a topical novel on issues such as immigration, Brexit and climate change. You don't really learn that much about the organization of the society beyond it being ruthless in terms of dealing with the "Others" hoping to conquer the walled defenses of a post-Climate Change Britain where sea water levels have risen precariously and life on other lands has become difficult. The ending takes a somewhat unresolved deus ex machina turn that feels like a cheat. The survival portion of the story up to that point was compelling though and the narration by Will Poulter in the audiobook was well done.

I can't see this mostly straightforward adventure story being a candidate for the Booker 2019 shortlist though as it hardly breaks any ground in novel or narrative form.

* Meaning the 1995 Kevin Costner movie.
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LibraryThing member thenumeraltwo
Another in the middle-aged-man distopian fiction genre. Page-turner enough that I rattled through it in an evening and a bit. The natural comparison is with _The Road_, which is the better story more poetically told.

More than the climate disaster, the core theme to return to is the Generational divide. Confected in real life, playing out here in the brutal shock of the change. A curtain that can't be drawn or crossed.

Solid story telling of our near climate future, but probably not going to be one I recommend too often, beyond using it as an example of generational dystopia.
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LibraryThing member thorold
This is clearly a book you have to read both as a climate-change dystopia and as a Brexit fable: either way it's an attack on British smugness and selfish insularity. Although, with a few small changes, it wouldn't be too difficult to imagine the same idea working for Australia, the USA, or even France. And Jose Saramago already did something similar for the Iberian peninsula with The stone boat. Islands are more common than you might think if you live on one...

In the world of the story, Great Britain has come out of climate change less badly than most of the planet. A 10 000 km concrete wall around the island is keeping the sea under control, and conditions within it are still relatively prosperous, even if young people find it difficult to forgive their parents for what they did to the world, and have little desire to become parents themselves, despite various bribes and incentives from the state.

Naturally, there are a lot of "Others" on the wrong side of the Wall who would like to get in, which means that it has to be guarded, by a huge conscript force of Defenders. The story opens with the narrator, Kavanagh, beginning his two-year stint of "sky cold water concrete wind", scanning the sea for approaching lifeboats and swimmers.

Lanchester frames the conscript experience in terms that (apart from the Defenders being co-ed) are clearly meant to reflect the National Service our fathers experienced in the forties and fifties. Specific things like bits of period slang and nicknames and the two-year term of service, and more general parts of conscript experience like the mix of unnecessarily basic living conditions and odd bits of luxury, the constant risk of draconian (collective) punishment for often incomprehensible offences, the arbitrary social mixing, the camaraderie with other wearers of the uniform, the way civilians react sympathetically to individual Defenders but stay out of the way when they see a group together, the counting down to discharge day, the temptation to avoid difficult life-choices by signing on for another term, and so on. My own father still talks more about the two years he spent in the army in the mid-1950s than about any other part of his 80+ years; I'm sure Lanchester must have had the same sort of thing inflicted on him, and he's clearly made profitable use of it.

This is a fable, not an attempt to create a realistic picture of a future world. The opening chapters are very powerful and effective bits of description, quite poetic in places, and there are a lot of nice satirical hits: reading about a society where exile is the ultimate penalty struck home on a day when the main British news story is about the government trying (and failing) to make good publicity for itself by sending a plane-load of unfortunate ex-convicts to Jamaica. But the book as a whole doesn't seem to work very well, probably because of Lanchester's pessimistic — but not unreasonable — refusal to imagine a sustainable future for his characters. I started to lose interest well before the end.
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LibraryThing member PIER50
I was very hopeful about this book, good author, Booker Prize longlisted, great reviews etc. However, it just left me cold. It has quite a slow build up considering it is a fairly short book. As people have said, lots of talk and description of being on ‘The Wall’ but very little happens in the first 150 pages. When there is some excitement, it all happens in the last 75 pages and I was concerned that the ending would be rather crammed in. It all seemed to end rather abruptly and my immediate reaction was ‘is that it’ A shame because there seemed some potential to explore the story further… (more)



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