Saturday, May 12, 2012

Review: The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall

Reading this book, a first collection of short stories by novelist Sarah Hall, underlines for me what I really want from my reading, and makes me realise how seldom I get it. I don't want to be simply entertained, diverted, informed or even satisfied, although all of these are good things to experience. No, what I really want is my deepest sense of the world confirmed and reignited, to feel raw yet healed with the truth of it, and buoyed with excitement. I want language so sharp and glittery and plump with that truth that the book is a taste, a texture on my tongue, a sensation in my gullet and gut. Above all, I want a pulse.

This book had all of these things for me. Via seven long stories set in places as far apart as Hall's native Cumbria and South Africa, it pulses with damage and sensuality. The first story, 'Butcher's Perfume', deservedly shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Prize, presents, in a prose punched with dialect ancient and modern, the first-person account of a Cumbrian schoolgirl's fascination with the Slessor family, grim fighters and sensual horse whisperers in a land drenched in a bloody history, 'burnt-farm, red-river raping territory', and in which, due to her unwitting involvement, that 'smoulder of years gone by' flares into a terrible act of revenge. Other stories, by contrast, present modern young women in contemporary situations or couples on exotic foreign holidays, but every one peels away the metropolitan surface to reveal, shockingly, a vertiginous precipice of uncertainty and pain. In the title story a successful writer has an assignation with her younger lover in a hotel in a busy tourist city. It's not long, however, before we're aware of the primitive and the animal beneath the city's slick veneer, and of the fact that this is a scenario of sexual dysfunction and deep emotional pain. The protagonist muses that pleasure and discomfort are 'so closely aligned', and images of fleshly danger and vulnerability swill the prose like the wash of pink around the venison arriving on the plate of the lover, a doctor currently forced by his medical rotation to work on the psychiatric wards, and regretting the loss of opportunity to conduct 'procedures'. While the protagonist finds his way of eating 'erogenous', there are inverted hints of the cutthroat:
He went very carefully through the dense tissue with his knife... He would put the knife in his mouth if anything stuck to it ... closing his lips over the blade, slipping it harmlessly along his tongue. 

Amputation is an image occurring in this story and in 'She Murdered Mortal He', a masterpiece of narrative tension in which, on arrival in a South African township as yet unspoilt by tourism, a couple's relationship, sparked and nurtured in the cosmopolitan city, immediately implodes. In a development reminiscent of M R James's 'Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You...' the female protagonist sets out in the dark to walk the narrow strip of sand on the beach and encounters not the physical dangers of which the travel brochures have warned her, but something more horrifying: her own animal nature. The cloak of civilisation similarly unravels in 'Vuotjarvi', in which a couple holiday beside a remote Finnish lake, the bottom of which is 'no more than a black imagining'. In the story with the most potentially conventional scenario, 'The Agency', the longings of an unfulfilled wife and mother turn out to be not so conventional, and concerned, once again, with that fine line between pleasure and pain.

'Bees', narrated in an internalised second person, presents a woman beginning a new flat-sharing life in London, but in contrast to the optimism usually suggested by such a situation, she sits in the garden surrounded by the mysteriously massacred bodies of bees, and eviscerated by the violence she has had to escape and the loss she paradoxically feels:
Your heart ... might be tracking north now, along edgelands, past spoil-heaps and stands of pylons, under motorway passes, back to the higher ground. Back to him.

'The Nightlong River' takes us back to ancestral territory, to an early-twentieth-century but also timeless world of hedgerows 'ruddy as a battle' with hawthorn and with 'a brown rot to the moors', where narrator Dolly's friend Magda is ailing, menstruating pathologically and developing tumours. Dolly determines to make her a coat of mink pelts, for which she joins the mink hunt. But the philanthropy of the gesture gives way to a primeval thrill in the hunt and the natural world:
But my dreams were not of Magda... What remains are the moors and the mountains, the solid world upon which we find ourselves, and in which we reign. We are the wolves. We are the lions.
A beautiful indifference indeed.
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