Friday, 30 November 2012

Sarah Hall: The Beautiful Indifference

This is a collection of prize-winning, much applauded stories.  They certainly gleam - sharp-edged, flawlessly designed -  ‘showing’ as perfectly as video clips, the language deliberately challenging, the situations diverse.  But, for me, there is something so self-consciously intended about them, it takes away some of the pleasure of reading. 

But then I think, if I were not another writer, would I be aware of the puppeteer pulling the strings?  As a writer you read differently.  Sarah Hall’s writing is always excellent, honed and polished to shine brightly. But these stories lack some essential emotional quality that would take them from the exceptional into the category of brilliant. After thinking about it for some time, I realise that one of  my main problems with them was that the voice of the young woman in each story is very similar - all the stories could be spoken by the same woman. And I can't get away from the fact that the stories leave me rather cold.  In fact, feeling exactly like the title story ‘a beautiful indifference’.

There are two outstanding stories.  The first is Vuotjarvi, where a young couple stay in a borrowed house beside a remote lake and ecstasy turns to tragedy.  The suspense is compelling.  The other story that stands out is She Murdered Mortal He (first published in Granta), an interior monologue, set in a remote African location, where a young couple are again on holiday.  The story is unsettling, and one is never sure of exactly what has happened, or what the roles of each individual are exactly.

Butcher’s Perfume is set in my own home territory, and I know the templates of the characters - real people she has caught on the page, like pinned butterflies.

One of the most beautiful stories (The Nightlong River) is about two young women set in some fictional past or future and their relationship.  That, for me was one of the most successful - the title story less so.

These stories are interesting as examples of modern short fiction - they’ve been described as ‘dazzling’ and they are, but I don’t want to be just dazzled, I also want to feel the warmth of the light.  For me the very best contemporary short fiction writers are still David Malouf, Alice Munro, and Ali Smith. But Sarah Hall isn’t far behind.

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