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Sarah Hall’s third novel, The Carhullan Army, combines a number of traditional opposites: science fiction and feminism (Margaret Atwood notwithstanding, the genre still whiffs of adolescent boys’ bedrooms), documentary realism and mythic simplicity, literary ambition and generic satisfactions. What holds it together, and ultimately makes it very affecting, is the passionate conviction of Hall’s prose and her gift for character and location. There are also, however, uneasy tensions within her take on the dystopian feminist subgenre.

The story is simple to the point of schematic. A woman lives in a near-future Britain ruled by a totalitarian “Authority.” This is a…

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