November 4, 2011 10:04 pm

The Beautiful Indifference

Sarah Hall’s short stories show how fragile moments of happiness can be

Author of four novels, Sarah Hall has collected a string of prizes. Haweswater won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel and the Betty Trask Award in 2003. The Electric Michelangelo made the Man Booker shortlist the following year. Her third novel, The Carhullan Army, won, among others, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 2007. How to Paint a Dead Man took the Portico Prize for Fiction last year, as well as being long-listed by the Booker. Her first collection of stand-alone stories, The Beautiful Indifference, may be slight, its stories inconsistent in quality, but their prose often reaches a standard that makes award juries sit up and take note.

The two tales that bracket the collection are outstanding. Set in the author’s native Cumbria, “Butcher’s Perfume” centres on an unruly, brutal girl named Manda from an unruly, brutal family that breeds horses. Manda “didn’t have a switch in there that stopped her from pulling back her fist, like the rest of us”, narrates the sweet, nice-girl Kathleen. “That’s why we were all afraid of her. That’s why her name went before her – Manda Slessor – and if you heard it said in a room you felt ill at ease, you felt things shift out of the way for its coming into the conversation. Everyone knew she was hard. It was the first thing ever they knew about her. It was her pedigree.”

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Almost whimsically – surely it could have gone either way – Manda adopts rather than bullies Kathleen, and the mismatched pair become friends. But when Kathleen reports to the Slessors that a neighbouring farmer has been starving a half-dead horse, her unholy allegiance with hardness exacts its price. Five of the seven stories pivot crucially on animals in some way, although the real wildlife in “Butcher’s Perfume” walks on two legs. It’s a story with a strong setting, sharp characterisations and a proper plot.

The last story in the collection, “Vuotjärvi”, has that unsettling this-could-be-you quality, as a young British couple’s holiday in a lakeside cottage in Finland begins with languor, eroticism and cultural curiosity; ah, beware any decent fiction writer’s joyful idyll.

A carefree plash beside their rowboat foreshadows the ending, for the woman is seized with sudden disquiet: “Underneath was vestigial territory. Rotting vegetation. Benthic silence. The scale of her body in this place was terribly wrong. Something was reaching up, pulling down.” (I had to look up “benthic”: of, relating to, or occurring at the bottom of a body of water. Wonderful, and a keeper. Generally if Hall uses an unfamiliar word, it rewards the web search.) The irrational terror passes, and a bucolic holiday resumes.

A strong swimmer, the boyfriend decides to breast-stroke to an island and back. Trusting his athleticism despite the distance, his lover stays behind on the lakeside to read. Stuck into her book, she loses track of him. As gradually too much time elapses and the boyfriend fails to emerge on the island’s shore, Hall brilliantly captures a sequence we all know well: blind faith and blitheness giving way to just a trace of doubt, returning to blitheness, giving way to piercing doubt, giving way to fully fledged anxiety, and finally to fearful urgency. The girlfriend drags their rowboat into the lake, making good time until halfway to the island the boat has taken on five inches of water. She had neglected to restore the bung in the hull, removed earlier in the story to ensure the beached boat didn’t swamp in the event of rain. The rescuer is herself in need of rescue. “Vuotjärvi” is a reminder of how jarringly the pastoral can jack-knife to peril.

“She Murdered Mortal He” also explores the sudden, arbitrary tearing of pleasant, normal romance into something wilder and unhinged, when another boyfriend on a couple’s impetuous trip to Africa employs the occasion to break up. For the woman, the argument that triggered their rift “had seemingly come out of nowhere. As if with her arch invitation to speak his mind she had conjured from a void the means to destroy everything. As if he had suddenly decided it could end. Like deciding he wanted her phone number. Like deciding to get a spare door key cut for her. How easily inverted the world could be. How dual it was.” Indeed, when she flees the safety of their resort, the holiday turns hellish.

The remaining stories are not all as well plotted, but Hall’s speciality is less suspense than language. She has a natural poetic ear for rhyme, be that internal, slant, or perfect. In “Bees”, “Is it something to do with infected hives? Mites in their throats or pesticide?” In “Butcher’s Perfume”, “she was lit up, the way someone plain looks better when they sing, when suddenly it seems they have bright colours under a dull wing.”

It might have been preferable to have delayed publication of a collection until the author had accumulated a fatter stack of stories, all of which rose to the high bar set by the first and last in this collection. Nevertheless, especially when wedded to a tale with muscular narrative drive, Hall’s voice is strong and distinctive – even, in single, elevated passages, exquisite.

Lionel Shriver’s new novel ‘The New Republic’ (HarperCollins) will be published in spring 2012

The Beautiful Indifference: Short Stories, by Sarah Hall, Faber, RRP£12.99, 187 pages

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