Summary and book reviews of The Wall by John Lanchester

The Wall

by John Lanchester

The Wall by John Lanchester X
The Wall by John Lanchester
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    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Mar 2019, 288 pages
    Mar 2020, 288 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Book Summary

The best-selling author of The Debt to Pleasure and Capital returns with a chilling fable for our time.

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…

John Lanchester - acclaimed as "an elegant and wonderfully witty writer" (New York Times) and "a writer of rare intelligence" (Los Angeles Times) - has written a taut, hypnotic novel of a broken world and what might be found when all is lost. The Wall blends the most compelling issues of our time - rising waters, rising fear, rising political division - into a suspenseful story of love, trust, and survival.

Sadly, an excerpt from The Wall is unavailable at this time.

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. What methods does Joseph Kavanagh come up with to deal with the monotony of life on the Wall?
  2. What does it mean to be a Defender? How does Kavanagh's perspective of his mandatory service as a Defender change over the course of Part 1? What do you think they are actually defending?
  3. How would you characterize the society before and after "the Change"?
  4. Kavanagh has a hard time relating and talking to his parents. It's not just an issue in his family, but throughout society. Why is there an intergenerational rift? Do you think the children of Kavanagh's generation will have a similar rift?
  5. What are the social classes in Kavanagh's society, and how rigid are they? Who are the Elites and the Help? Does Kavanagh's opinion of either of ...
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BookBrowse Review


While The Wall might not provide any deep introspective examination of its subject matter, that simply doesn't seem to have been the goal. Instead, Lanchester offers an action-heavy excursion in an extreme environment with a protagonist that is brave, but also flawed and relatable. There's a lot to be said for a novel that is just plain fun to read...continued

Full Review (671 words).

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(Reviewed by Lisa Butts).

Media Reviews

Washington Post
As a parable, this is all highly relevant. As a novel, it’s fairly dull. Boredom is a hard state to portray effectively without succumbing to it...Lanchester knows how societies function and fail to function. He understands class conflicts on a profound level. All his previous insight about the way different groups of people live together and contend for resources could have illuminated this dystopia with real fire.

The Guardian
It’s a clever, clairvoyant concept. Lanchester reveals with slow, steady control the cruelties of his strange new world and then socks you with their philosophical implications...Despite being very different to Lanchester’s last novel, Capital, The Wall suffers from some of the same flaws: underdeveloped characters, particularly the women, a lack of convincing detail and an overly schematic plot.

New York Times
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.

Beautifully written and chillingly plausible, Lanchester's work is dystopian fiction at its finest.

Publishers Weekly
This terrifyingly resonant depiction of desperation will spark lively discussions about the responsibilities climate change is restructuring, and is electrifying storytelling to boot.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Dystopian fiction done just right, with a scenario that's all too real.

Author Blurb Emily St. John Mandel
In The Wall, John Lanchester takes our current political climate to its terrible and logical extreme. A harrowing, brilliant, and troublingly plausible vision of the future.

Author Blurb Philip Pullman
John Lanchester's previous novels have all been memorable evocations of the world we're familiar with, but The Wall is something new: almost an allegory, almost a dystopian-future warning, partly an elegant study of the nature of storytelling itself.

Author Blurb Garth Risk Hallberg
Book by book, John Lanchester proves himself one of our necessary writers, equal in wit, good nature, and fundamental sanity to whatever insane thing the new century throws at us. Like some lost work by George Orwell, The Wall reveals what's in front of all our noses.

Author Blurb Joshua Ferris
A dystopian distillation of our troubled times and an allegorical glimpse at a still-grimmer future, The Wall reminds us that even as politics corrupts and destroys, the soul erupts in surprising places to act as counterpoint and resistance. This patient, direct, suspenseful novel is one such eruption, and a civilizing comfort amid the simmering bloodlust.

Author Blurb Kim Stanley Robinson
With The Wall, John Lanchester follows his mind-boggling financial essays and his great realist novel Capital with a bold science fiction fable, a vivid, swift, chilling, and ultimately beautiful human story.

Author Blurb Adelle Waldman
Like Kazuo Ishiguro's dystopian love story Never Let Me Go, The Wall is intelligent, emotionally layered, and suspenseful, a pleasure to read in spite of the bleak future in which it is set. I only wish that this richly imagined future didn't feel quite as plausible as it does at the moment.

Author Blurb Keith Gessen
A writer as funny as he is humane, John Lanchester has made a specialty of chronicling our contemporary descent into hell in the most charming possible way. This novel of life in the aftermath of climate change apocalypse is no exception. It is the scariest and most entertaining book I have read in a long time.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Climate Change and Migration in the U.S.

Climate ChangeIn John Lanchester's The Wall, protagonist Joseph Kavanagh is conscripted into military service to defend the titular wall against a breach by the "Others." The Others are not an invading army, however, but individuals displaced from their homes by some unnamed climate disaster. In the real world, as the effects of climate change become increasingly apparent and irreversible, it is not difficult to imagine a similar scenario in which areas of the Earth become virtually uninhabitable.

2017 was notably high in disasters that can be linked to climate change, including six hurricanes in the Atlantic, massive wildfires in the western U.S., and deadly record-breaking temperatures. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre cites a figure of ...

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