Many novelists use short fiction as a venue for experimentation in genre, style or voice. From Sarah Hall whose four novels to date each take a different approach already what can we expect? Her Romantic-tinged debut Haweswater is very different to the brutal SF of The Carhullan Army, whilst the four strands of How To Paint A Dead Man are notable for the distinctive voices Hall brings to each character through careful choice of style and language.
The seven stories collected in The Beautiful Indifference unsurprisingly follow the trend of the novels in their stylistic variety.
Be aware however that this is a book you are likely to put down after 40 pages. Not because you are not enjoying it but simply that the opening story ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ will force a pause, a breath taking, a thought collecting, lingering pause. The narrator of ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ is a teenage girl, discussing mostly her developing friendship with another teenage girl, but Manda Slessor is a hard girl, from a proud, intense traveller family. There is violence brewing in every line of this story, a taut, visceral description that when it breaks, breaks where you hadn’t expected, though it is entirely logical that was the point.
At the other end of the book is ‘Vuotjärvi’ with its unsupressed sexuality, and haunting mystery. It is a superbly crafted story, the nearest this collection comes, perhaps, to unspoken Fantastika in the entwining of landscape, lust and inexplicable loss.
If the eroticism of ‘Vuotjärvi’ and the violence of ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ are explicit, each also bears an undercurrent of the other too. And throughout these stories there is a continual shifting allegiance between concealed violence and concealed eroticism. The Northern stories in particular are acutely aware and proud of this carnality.
‘The Agency’ positively revels in it, all the way to its delicately bypassed climax. Housewife Hannah joins the titular Agency for a new experience, and we follow her through the initial interview.
I took another sip, aware that for all his deference, I was being gently marshalled. There was something deliberately neutral about the meeting, but the young man standing over me was passively steering things.
That is how Hall operates, whatever her subject, she subtly directs the reader to her point. Amidst the evocative landscapes of Finland or the rich Cumbrian dialect she weaves a sinuous plotline to draw us as the world she describes holds us. Cleverly the sequencing of the collection does the same, leading through relationships from the assertive egalitarian Slessors self-confident physicality to the wistful internal sensualisation of the woman watching her lover swim away. It is perhaps no coincidence that the stories move progressively from solid, unconventional comfortable relationships to formalised casual sex (‘The Beautiful Indifference’) to more normal yet less certain loves, or lost and unreplaced loves (‘Bees’) nor that this is largely countered by the ability to walk away evolving into the need to kill. The gothic ‘She Murdered Mortal He’ seems to address both strands directly until any action by its wounded narrator seems equally transgressive and redemptive.
Within all of this Sarah Hall writes a range of incredible, strong, rich women characters. In the hills below Penrith Manda trades raw toughness for tempered compassion with Kathleen, but in her mother we see a typical Hall strong woman familiar from her early novels here allowed her full glory. Hannah gains confidence, ironically, in her recognition and acceptance of manipulation.
So it goes, the women telling these stories, or being told about, each has a cusp, a point of recognition of their abilities and opportunities. They all become stronger. Even the woman of ‘Bees,’ a second-person singular story of a new life post-breakup, develops an affinity with her new environment that marks a renewal. The exception, perhaps, is my least favourite story here.’The Nightlong River’ tells of a woman making a mink cape for a dying friend. For all its detail, and poignancy, it remains vague in historical setting, relationship and meaning.
The Beautiful Indifference is a short, but intense collection. The 7 stories, though very different, blend well, whilst each showcasing Hall’s remarkable facility with language and her range of means of achieving similar effect: the correlations of landscapes and peoples.
The Beautiful Indifference is published by Faber & Faber price £12.99
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