Sarah Hall writes exquisitely. Of this I was convinced when I first feasted on her novel Haweswater, a passionate love story set in the Lake District, which also examines the impact of dam building and consequent displacement of the people in the valley. Interestingly enough, the only other novel I read since then is her last one, The Wolf Border – a novel which I thought was good but not great, although I do recall some bits of it simply because the central premise was so original.
When it comes to the short stories though, Sarah Halls’ writing takes on a whole new level. She has now released a total of three collections – The Beautiful Indifference, Madame Zero, and now Sudden Traveller. All are miniature works of art.
Sudden Traveller is a slim book at 124 pages and comprises seven stories.
The first story ‘M’ has shades of ‘Mrs Fox’, of her earlier collection Madame Zero. In ‘M’, the protagonist is a woman and a lawyer who decides to do pro bono work for a shelter. This is a shelter for women – beaten down, abused, and out of luck. Her efforts are in vain though, as the shelter is eventually demolished.
But while this avenue shuts down, another one opens up, as the central character undergoes a physical transformation.
The last decision of life, and the monetary drop, a first rush, like the waterfall’s crest, the brink of climax. For that second, such kinetic beauty, trust in nothingness. Then – a crack behind her, huge and dull and viscose, as the wings extend, unfurl and are filled, begin her flight. Suddenly, the city is far below, turning slowly in relied, roadways, estates and parks, contoured and furrowed and rapidly passing, a new landscape, a map of the hunt.
She becomes a mythical creature at night who can fly. And she sets about providing relief to the women who have been wronged.
Such a raucous call. There are so many – she could not have known before. And she cannot find them all. She seeks first the ones who transmit loudest, smell strongest, those who cannot hide and for whom it will be worst. Girls. The girl given animal tranquillisers, shared by seven of them, a lottery of seed inside.
But it doesn’t stop there. Earlier, only concerning herself with rescuing the women, she now branches out into punishing the men responsible for their sorry plight. In other words, she becomes an avenger of sorts. This is vintage Hall with all her trademark themes of feminism, and transformation.
After the visceral quality of the first story, the second one ‘The Woman the Book Read’ is mellower but no less beautifully penned. It begins hauntingly enough…
Ara. The name was unusual; he wouldn’t have recognized her otherwise. If she’d walked past him in the street, even if she’d been sitting opposite him in the café and he’d had time to study her, he probably wouldn’t have guessed.
Our male protagonist is in a beach town in the Middle East. One day, while in the midst of discussing business with a colleague, he hears the name Ara being called out. The invocation of this name brings back a flood of memories and transports him into his past.
We learn that Ara was the daughter of the woman he was involved with then. At the time, Ara was a child and the two develop a bond, which over the years fades away. In the present, Ara is now a grown woman who may or may not remember the man her mother was in a relationship with all those years ago.
Relationships of adults with children is a dominant theme in the third story too called ‘The Grotesques’. Here the central focus is a mother-daughter relationship. It’s 30-year old Dilly’s birthday and her overbearing mother, who is hosting a family get-together for Dilly, sends her out to run a few errands.
Dilly, meanwhile, is having a miserable day. She comes across a cruel prank played on a homeless man, is caught in the rain – wet and wretched by the time she reaches home, and is pining for a hot scone at her own party.
In ‘The Grotesques’, Hall has brilliantly conveyed the sense of claustrophobia in close family settings. Dilly’s mother is outspoken, at the centre of things, and her dominating personality confines Dilly to the sidelines.
Mummy could change a story or revise history with astonishing audacity, and seemed to instantly believe the new version.
Dilly is awkward and introverted as compared to her more accomplished siblings, and this puts her at odds with her mother – the two are as different as chalk and cheese.
Vengeance again is the central theme of the story ‘Who Pays?’, a story set in a Turkish forest with a very fairytale feel to it.
Who sees? Who pays? Always the women.
Sex and eroticism is an element that is vital to Hall’s writing. In ‘Orton’, an elderly woman with a heart disease, and fitted with technology, decides to visit a place in the moors called Orton. It is the scene of a previous sexual encounter with a man in her youth, before she married. Although purely a physical contact, it is a memory that is still vivid in her mind, enough for the woman to want to revisit the place.
Hall’s descriptions of the moors are gorgeous….
The moor hadn’t changed. The grass was restless, bleached and occasionally bright auburn when the sun lit it. Long walls ran upwards towards the fells, and the cleaved limestone pavements sat pale and dull on the slopes. Wind-leant trees, peat gullies, flocks of heather and the occasional darting thing. Under the clouds, great dark shadows moved across the hills.
The title story ‘Sudden Traveller’, which to me is the highlight of the collection, is a beautiful meditation on death, loss and grief. It is also a piece in which she has expertly juxtaposed birth (of the protagonist’s child) with death (of the protagonist’s mother).
One can’t help but feel if there is a touch of the personal here. Hall gave birth to her child around the same time that her mother died.
Not surprisingly, the opening is a cracker…
You breastfeed the baby in the car, while your father and brother work in the cemetery. They are clearing the drains of leaves and silt, so your mother can be buried.
We learn of the mother’s illness, the endless hospital visits and waiting in her final days and the final act of burial. The grief and the coping involved. Against this, we are given a glimpse of the early days of motherhood: a happy one, but challenging nevertheless…
You are so tired there are moments you are not sure if you are awake any more. It feels like those early newborn days, the fugue state of new motherhood, when the baby was in a separate plastic cot at your bedside.
It’s not all gloom though. Rays of hope shine through, as does the prospect of picking up your life and starting again.
Nothing is unchanging. Rain that seems unstoppable, that seems impossible to see through, that keeps coming down, obscuring the world, washing away time, will end. Like everything else, it is only passing spirit.
And then you know how it will be. Breaking cloud, sky with discernible colour, fantastic-seeming sunlight. The rain will lift. The river will recede.
Overall, Sudden Traveller is a fascinating collection of stories that explores the themes of feminism, of what it is to be a woman, metamorphosis, and motherhood.
The collection is aptly titled with multiple meanings that convey not only physical travel but also journeys of the mind. It could either be harking back to the past or staring into an unknowable future. A lot of the characters in these stories witness a big change or are thrust into situations suddenly and are compelled to survive and make best of the situation.
This rain is not helping: savage, unrelenting, incanting, strange even for here, making it hard to see anything clearly or think clearly. What you sense is mutability, the selves within the self. The terror of being taken, ahead, into sheer darkness. What is coming? Not just this lesson of a dying mother. But travel — You can do no more than intuit. You suspect your dreams are communicating far more destruction than you have interpreted, and in this you are correct. The future is a window that cannot be opened until it is opened.
Sarah Hall’s voice is unique and utterly captivating. There is a fierce, sensual quality to her writing that is entirely her own. She excels at lush descriptions and creating arresting images. It also explains why her short stories are so much better than the longer novels – her razor sharp sentences and spare, lyrical, staccato like prose comes across more vividly in the shorter form.
In one of her interviews with Guardian, a few years ago, here’s what Hall had to say on writing short stories…
“You’re required to fit much more in. It’s the world-on-the-head-of-a-pin thing. It was excellent discipline for me, the baggy, sloppy novelist, to think about form and plot.”
Here’s a quote in another equally interesting interview with Guardian (after the publication of the rather wonderful collection Madame Zero)…
“I do like short stories to be a powerful distilling. It is a place for dark psychology and a potent literary dosage. When I start out it usually stems from a thought, or something I heard in the news that gives me a shape. I like reading stories that give you a huge wallop, one you don’t see on the surface.”
In a nutshell, Sarah Hall’s short stories are rich, flavourful, and meant to be savoured slowly.
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