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Curiously old-fashioned and mainly mobile free stories...
on 23 November 2013
These seven stories are curiously old-fashioned, especially from a novelist usually so `cutting edge' as Sarah Hall. All involve `relationships', that perennial topic of short-story writers. In the title story, Hall has one woman tell another that `Relationships are all defined differently, aren't they?' Yet the relationships in Hall's stories are not particularly `different', `new' or unfamiliar. In the order in which the stories appear in the collection, we have: the two teenage girls who are seemingly incompatible but are `best friends'; `the older woman' waiting for her lover; the refugee from the North (and her violent husband) engaged in starting a new life in London; the bored housewife seeking sexual thrills; a couple's tiff on holiday and its consequences; a woman making something for a dying friend; and a lake swim where the woman is worried because the man has swum out of sight.
Hall is good on suspense and best at leaving readers to speculate on `outcomes'. For instance, in the title story, the central character has three boxes of painkillers in her purse. Does Hall's throw-away sentence, `Her mother was the same age', indicate an intention to commit suicide? Another remark supports the idea: `What would they say about her attire, if they found her in the bracken'? The story's ending is highly suggestive: `The hills were around her. She took up her purse, opened the car door. It was like opening a book.' The pared-down style may shock readers already familiar with Hall as the lyrical novelist of `Haweswater', `The Electric Michelangelo' and `How to Paint a Dead Man'. In these stories, Hall's short staccato sentences work well. They are ideally suited to a literary genre where concise expression and suggested meaning are paramount. Unfortunately, in `The Beautiful Indifference', the loss of lyricism and the flatness in Hall's expression results in emotional indifference in the reader. With the exception of `Bees', in which Hall marvelously highlights the difficulties of a Cumbrian girl making a start to her new life in London, it is difficult to care about Hall's characters and what may happen to them.
Over-many stories suffer from an intrusive implausibility that, of all things, involves mobile phones! Hall evidently intends `Butcher's Perfume', the first story in the collection, to be `slice of life' stuff involving teenage girls. It's unbelievable that Kathleen and Manda don't have phones in order to keep in contact like every other teenager! In the title story, Hall tells us that the man `always texted afterwards, to thank her'. If it's `not uncommon' for the man to be late for an assignation it's incredible that the couple haven't worked something out on their phones In `Bees', Hall writes evocatively about the central character who `acquaints herself' with a London which Hall wonderfully refers to as a `faceted city' . Yet, implausibly, there is no mention of help from a mobile phone! In `She Murdered Mortal Me', Hall tells us that `late night texts' have been `formative' in the relationship of the couple. But where are their phones when they are separately walking through the jungle at night?
`The Agency' is the exception in the collection. Hall demonstrates how mobile use can underscore character and behaviour. Hannah, housewife and mother, having hidden a laddered black stocking in the kitchen bin, emerges from the bath to three missed calls. The first is from her husband indicating when he will be home having collected their daughter from swimming; the second is from `The Agency' confirming her next `appointment'; the third is from the friend who introduced Hannah to the agency asking if she would mind looking after her daughter next day. Hall's ending beautifully illustrates Hannah's indifference to guilt and the shared complicity in action with the friend:
`I called her back and agreed to mind Laura. We spoke for a moment or two. There was a pause in the conversation, and the came her gay, indecorous laughter.
Oh, we must catch up soon. I do hope you had a jolly time in the city today.
I was just visiting a relative, I said.
She laughed again. Yes. Of course, darling. Of course.'
`The Nightlong River' is exceptional for a different reason: Hall confronts the `the truth of death' (Magda's and the minks') in a memorably stylish fashion in typically wondrous imagery. In `The Beautiful Indifference', the best is second last:
`Magda was delighted with the cape. She got glistery-eyed when she saw it next morning and got up from her bed like a miracle-walker.
She said, You hang the moon, Dolly Carter, you hang the moon!
And she kissed my check and hugged me to her until I blushed scarlet. She had me put the garment over her shoulders and fasten the horn button, and then she curtsied like a proper dame. She looked like a silky portion of night before me, and I did wonder if I hadn't reached down into some charmed well of pitch, contracting with a rabble of spirits to create the thing.'
On the other hand, `Vuotjärvi', the final story, is the weakest and most implausible of the lot. If the woman is so worried about her partner (and intruding on the Finnish neighbours!) why not ring the woman who has lent the house and whose mobile she had called earlier that day? Hall achieves suspense but, here and elsewhere, it is at the expense of plausibility. Implausibility is acceptable if it can be willingly suspended; that's not consistently the case in Hall's first short story collection.