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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.

Stewart Robertson
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on 24 March 2017
very good
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on 23 December 2011
This is the first book of Sarah Hall's I've read. It's a collection of seven stories, all from a female point of view and set mostly in the North West.
She is obviously a writer's writer.
Words are used precisely, carefully; now and then, over-preciously. She uses phrases like 'Benthic silence' and words like 'anomic'.
Her prose is serious, humourless, highly in tune with the natural world. Mink, dogs, horses, foxes, bees all feature heavily.
Her interests are in relationships, mostly between people like doctors, lawyers, academics, journalists and, I'm afraid to say, authors (though she does not write about work). The kind of people who go on holiday to slightly off beat places ( two of these stories are of the 'couple on trip get into trouble' ilk). This allows her to write sentences such as: 'She thought about the blue Arabia crockery they had seen in the antique market by the quay in Helsinki' and 'the air was heavy, greenly perfumed and the avian calls were loud and greasy.' (Greasy?)
These people's marriages have become loveless or mildly abusive. Her female protagonists run away from them or pay for the love they lack in plush hotels. It's hardly revolutionary, but it is exactly described.
Sex is an activity of the utmost earnestness: her protagonists suffer 'peculiar tearful euphoria in climax': 'the world before and after was incredibly vivid' she writes. 'The heat and the smell and closeness of him was peculiarly surrounding, amniotic. ' No one has the perfectly alright, occasional sex that sustains most relationships. Even the aged gypsy couple in the long, opening story, 'Butcher's Perfume' have unashamedly noisy couplings that turn the atmosphere 'gamier'.
The author writes little dialogue, much description. Hers are highly emotional but, thanks to her style, curiously bloodless worlds. No one watches TV or surfs the net or puts up a shelf or goes to the toilet. No one talks about politics or the state of the economy or The X-Factor. They hunt mink, order venison, swim naked in Finnish lakes.
These stories are compelling, beautifully rendered and have complex resolutions, but for me, are just a little artificial.
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on 27 August 2013
I personally feel Sarah Hall has wrote this superb. Sarah has well constructed this novel by adding landscape to tell each short story which location the characters are. All the short seven stories are told by a woman's point of view, where Sarah has given a distinitively strong voice for them all. Each of the well adapted scenes has it's age , place and problems in a relationship. There are unsettling darkly and erotic scenes in the short stories. This is truely a masterpiece with one of the best short story collections that I have read. I really recommend The Beautiful Indifference. Review by ireadnovels wordpress com. A very happy reading to all
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on 3 June 2012
A beautiful series of short stories with landscapes at their heart but with a range of themes and styles. All are thought-proking, challenging and unique, many about dark desires, some sexually blunt at times. A few are less perfect than the others in terms of satisfying the reader, finishing brusquely, but Sarah Hall's writing is so earthy, so Anglo-Saxon in its language that I find them all refreshing. Highly recommended.
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on 5 January 2012
Having read all of Hall's work, I can say this is her best yet, and the reviews from all the major broadsheets seem to agree. These stories tell of human relationships and place them in such wonderful, real settings. The language is beautiful - as Lionel Shriver said in the FT - you find that every word you have to look up is well worth the effort. When reading Hall's work I always find myself marvelling at how she finds these words and uses language so beautifully. Here evocations of places that I know, including the Finnish countryside so well rendered in Vuotjärvi, make the reader feel great emotion, and feel that you are there.
For me the stand out piece is the Vuotjärvi as the tension builds and builds to a nearly unbearable degree by the end.
There are all types of characters in these stories, from the utterly un-posh in Butcher's Perfume, for example, to some slightly more middle class figuers in some of the other stories. It is part of Hall's amazing artistry that she can deal with rough people and rough settings with such amazing artistry. I don't feel that it matters that characters in these stories are not watching 'the X-Factor', these are stories about all types of people that are told with love, skill, precision and artistry.
When I recommend Hall's work to friends, as I frequently do, I always tell them that here is a writer who is a true artist, not someone just writing some story. Buy this book!
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on 17 December 2011
This book is a collection on seven short stories, each set in a different place, each featuring the viewpoint of a different woman at a key stage of her life, and each conjuring up a different emotion.
The title is taken from the second story which is set in Yorkshire. The twist in the tale (sic) is its unexpected, yet bitter-sweet, ending. Only when you read the last paragraph do you realise the inevitable destination of the story and the real meaning of the title.
I bought this book after hearing it reviewed on the BBC Open Book programme. The discussion of the theme of the book, great issues of life, death and love, caught my attention and I downloaded a sample to my Kindle. The introduction to the first story, set in the moorlands of the Scottish borders brought the landscape and its inhabitants to vivid life on the page. I was hooked and quickly downloaded the whole book.
Together the stories create a patchwork of people and places, all living in their own worlds yet all concerned with the basic questions of living, loving and dying. This little book is a most enjoyable trip into the mind of woman writer who will stir your deepest feelings if you dare to read her.
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on 18 June 2013
I was slightly disappointed with 'The Beautiful Indifference'. I had thoroughly enjoyed 'Haweswater' and 'The Electric Michelangelo', but was left with a feeling of incompleteness by this collection of short stories. The stories themselves are well written, with strong characterisations. Perhaps it's because I, as a reader, want more than a short story can offer, and the weakness is with me rather than the story. With 'The Agency', for example, I wanted there to be more to it than the 'satisfied ending'. There seemed to be more threads to be picked up. The title story, 'The Beautiful Indifference' I did enjoy. The ending was not 'cut and dried', but the impetus of the story allowed your imagination to freewheel into the future. Sarah Hall is a very good writer, but this is not her best genre.
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on 28 July 2012
As the heading indicates I think this book marks an interesting advance in Sarah Hall's work. Her grounding in rural life in Cumbria is still very apparent but it no longer dominates her work to the same extent and generally her use of language is stronger and more complex. She has always been a very thoughtful writer but now she writes with confidence and maturity and has produced some very fine stories in this collection. For people familiar with her work I recommend this book very strongly and those who who are new to her work will find it easy to engage with these stories - I feel she is becoming a more commanding presence in contemporary literature.
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on 20 October 2012
These seven stories span a range of times and location (Mozambique, Finland, Cumbria, London). Relationships gone wrong, mostly, and their inherent riskiness are at the heart of the book. The writing brings the world vividly to life - the hotel room in York where an older novelist waits for a much younger junior doctor lover, a night time walk in untouristed Africa, a lake in Finland. It's a very bleak world. There is not much ordinary day to day contact. The main exception is the first story, set in adolescence, which deals to a degree in friendship and which sort of ends happily ever after. All are memorable though and well worth reading.
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