Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
John Lanchester is a man closely engaged in following the modern sociopolitical landscape, and in The Wall he attempts to imagine what it would be like if taken to its absolute extreme. The story begins by presenting us with an island nation, England, which built a giant wall around itself as a means of protection against a dying world. Enter John Kavanagh, a new Defender of the wall, tasked with keeping the desperate souls outside from getting in, under penance of death if he were to fail.
Table of contents
John Lanchester Shows us the End
As the years go by, I think most of us have come to realize just how much of a threat we are to the planet, and how much of a threat its changes are to us. In the past few decades we have seen temperatures rise beyond the normal scale, the ice caps melting, countless species going extinct, and despite our efforts to slow things down we are still very far behind our needed goal.
From one day to the next, it might be a little easy to get used to the changes and not think about the doom which might await us centuries, if not decades down the line. In The Wall, John Lanchester takes it upon himself to show us a possible turn of events.
The story begins by showing us a world ravaged by climate change, with the sea levels having risen by many feet and rendering much of the planet uninhabitable. Though most are unfortunate enough to be swept up in the chaos of the open world, England has managed to secure its survival, at least for the short-term, by building a massive wall around its entire coastline, effectively shielding itself from everything and everyone. Even so, with a distinct lack of food, water, fire and electricity, as well as pirates roaming around, survival is only one wrong step away from becoming a thing of the past.
Our main protagonist for this story is John Kavanagh, a freshly-recruited Defender of the wall. His job is to keep watch over his small section and ensure no desperate people from the outside get in, no matter their intentions. Should he fail in his duty, the punishment is either death, or perhaps even worse, exile beyond the wall.
As John spends his days on the border between what little is left of civilization and the Armageddon outside, he learns to make a life for himself in this extreme new world, and begins to wonder what it would be like if he actually had to exercise his duty one day, and shoot at those from beyond the wall.
One Man’s Life in the Ashes
End of the world books come in many different tastes and varieties, to the point where it has evolved into a genre of its own. In this specific story, Lanchester decides to largely focus on the life of our protagonist John and the way in which he tries to make a place for himself in a world dying a painful death. Though we do learn enough about his past to make a sense of who it is exactly we are following, the author doesn’t dwell too much on it for my liking and focuses largely on the present.
I have to say, it is quite fascinating to explore Lanchester‘s projection of what the world might look like at its extreme when ravaged by Mother Nature herself, and he takes a good bit of time to describe this new world, at least as seen by our protagonist.
The nation he lives in is meticulously examined, with all of its dynamics laid bare before us. It shows the author put a lot of thought and effort into realizing his vision, with people’s hopes, aspirations, behaviours and reactions being brought to more extreme ends as a logical reflection of the conditions they exist in.
As far as John’s personal journey, there is a whole lot of observation and discussion as he simply spends his days trying to secure the nation’s survival just like everyone else. He is certainly a likeable and intelligent enough character for me to have enjoyed following, and watching him struggle with the oppressive conditions of his reality worked well in making him sympathetic and endearing from the early pages.
Our Potential Future
Now, with the presence of the wall it might be easy to assume this book is rife with political messages and whatnot, but I assure you the story moves rather far away from this and focuses much more on realizing the dramatization of where we might be headed in the future.
While it is possible, of course, to derive some political meaning from examining the workings of the island’s society, it feels as if the author’s point was to demonstrate how it can all be an extension of how we are treating the planet.
Thankfully, Lanchester doesn’t dwell on exactly how the cataclysm happened, or what the cause of it might have been. The implications are fairly clear, and besides, there are already more than enough works dealing with this subject in amazing detail. Instead, we are simply invited to live through this end of the world alongside John, and experience the hopelessness of a world far beyond the point of no return.
As you might have expected, we don’t spend the entire story huddled behind the wall with John, and without wanting to spoil anything, the story does move further away from it a certain point. As we reach this stage and move onward into the wild, it feels as if the author’s descriptive abilities gain in power as he depicts simply breathtaking vistas of annihilation.
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Their accumulation really helps drive home the point of what might await us one day should we continue with our careless behaviour; though it might be in the realms of fiction, it still serves as a very compelling and alarming window into the future of mankind.
The Final Verdict
The Wall by John Lanchester is a very emphatic and compelling novel about the potential road climate change might lead us on, as seen through the eyes of an average man forced to contend with the end of the world along what little remains of society. If you enjoy dystopian novels revolving around the end of the world, I highly recommend you give this one a try.
John Henry Lanchester
John Henry Lanchester is a British novelist and journalist who had the distinction of being brought up in Hong Kong and educated in England. His work as a journalist includes a number of essays, such as “Short Cuts”, “1979 and all that: Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution”, and more recently in 2018, “After the Fall”.
He has also published a few novels such as The Debt to Pleasure, Fragrant Harbour and Capital, as well as some non-fiction books including Family Romance and What We Talk About When We Talk About the Tube.