Sarah Hall has form, and her new short story collection The Beautiful Indifference is on the top of it. I pre-ordered it months ago when I first heard it was coming out, and then forgot all about it until an anonymous parcel arrived a few weeks ago with it nestled inside. Straight out of the packet it came and in went my bookmark.
There are just seven stories in all, none longer than 40 widely spaced pages. Five are about failing or faltering romantic relationships. Death - of animals, of people - is a constant. Each of the 185 pages is ripe with the uneasiness and queasy disorientation that are Hall's distinctive calling cards.
'Butcher's Perfume' was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award in 2010, and is a stand-out opener about the horse-breeding Slessor family, and the terrible revenge they take after an animal is cruelly killed. Told by an outsider - Kathleen, the unlikely friend of teenaged Manda Slessor - is primed with exquisite tension, setting the knife-edge tone of the rest of the collection. It is typical of Hall in other ways too: being set in Cumbria, and intimately concerned with the experience of landscape. The sense of place and history of place is extremely strong; the Slessors an incarnation of it:
People said she [Manda] was raised to it, with that family of hers. ... They'd been forged from the old rage of the north, it was said. They were not drovers or farmers, not the quiet settlers of the borders. They can from gipsy stock, scrappies, dog-and-horse-breeders, fire-mongers. These were the ones who lit the beacons when other folk hid in cellars and down wells. They smeared offal on their chests and waited at the citadel with their bearded hounds for the Scots. ... The men would take up arms. The women would braid boars' hair into their own. They'd murder their infants birthed to the offcoming sires. Where does history end, we were once asked in school. You may as well ask where true north begins.
The north isn't the only place thus invoked. 'The Bees' is a Cumbrian woman's descent into hell, otherwise known as London; 'She Murdered Mortal He' is set in an unnamed African beach resort only just opened to tourists; and the glorious 'Vuotjarvi' (longlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Award in 2011) on the shores of one of Finland's sixty thousand lakes.
My favourite story - a difficult decision for me to make, but make it I must - was 'The Nightlong River'. It distills everything that I admire about The Beautiful Indifference into one slight but perfectly formed capsule. Oblique, elegiac and disturbing at once. The narrator is Dolly, whose sister Magda is dying of a poorly diagnosed cancer. Winter is coming, the deepest darkest winter in long years, and with it an invasion of mink, 'villainous wee devils' who 'slaughtered for the slenderest tast of blood seemingly'. The men of the sisters' rural community decide that nothing but a complete and ruthless cull will answer; Dolly decides that there could be no better Christmas present for her withering sister than a cape made from the wee devils' blooded skins.
The story is all blood and snow. It is two-toned: red and white. A glut of red berries and late autumn fruits is a sign of the harshness of the coming winter, paralleling to Magda's never-ending trickling menses, a symptom of her illness. The descriptive language is intimate, visceral, uncanny:
We knew from the November berries what the next months would bring. Everywhere they were hung and clotted in the bushes, ripe and red, like blisters of blood. The hollies came out in autumn... Rose hips clung on well past their season, until the bird eventually went with them. The yarrow and rowan hung out their own gaudy bunting. But it was the hawthorn that was the truest messanger that year... The hawthorns sent the hedgerows ruddy as a battle. It meant a full winter of snow. ... So the berries told us, and we were warned. But they were gorgeous in their prediction too; they lit the back roads with a bright skin-light, even as the first daads dusted the fells, and the becks stiffened, and the feathers of rooks stick to the walls.
The coat that Dolly makes Magda is both horrifying - 'a little gamey' - and a tender offering of sisterly devotion. This is what Hall is best at. That strange and wonderful juxtaposition of what is most terrible and what is most lovely; of fleeting glorious love-making next to pain and loss. Just so in the title story 'The Beautiful Indifference' in which another woman, also dying we surmise from cancer, spends one last weekend with her lover in York before giving herself up to the inevitable on a glorious Cumbrian moor.
The only duff note for me was 'The Agency', a piece about a woman who turns to an escort service for sexual fulfillment. It was claustrophobic - the woman moves from her kitchen, to her car, to sexual rendevous, back to her home - and sallow amongst the wildness of the rest. But one cuckoo in this brood isn't worth dwelling on. More, more, more please.