Mrs Caliban – Rachel Ingalls

Mrs Caliban was one of the books I had carried with me to a much needed holiday in Goa; the beach, the waves and the leisurely pace of the hours stretching before me only enhanced the joy of reading this terrific book.

About twenty pages into Mrs Caliban, Dorothy Caliban is busy in the kitchen making preparations for dinner. Fred, her husband, has invited a colleague over and the two are in the living room discussing work. This dinner having been sprung on her last minute, Dorothy makes it clear that the party will have to make do with spaghetti and salad and Fred relents. It’s a very ordinary scene – a housewife bustling about in the kitchen, cooking and assembling dishes, but suddenly this very ordinary moment is transformed into something extraordinary. Dorothy whirls around and sees an amphibian creature, a frogman, barging into the kitchen.

She was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face.

This is the very same frogman who has escaped from the research institute he was imprisoned in with repeated warnings given over the radio on how violent he is since he had killed two scientists while breaking free. After the initial flash of shock and fright, Dorothy regains her composure and offers the frogman some celery since he is ravenous and later installs him in a room downstairs, a place that Fred barely visits, and thus a secret Dorothy can keep till she figures out what to do next.

On the strength of such a wonderfully novel idea, Mrs Caliban, then, is a tale of the disintegration of a marriage, love and sexual freedom, grief and loss, friendship and betrayal, and the re-invention of a woman having hit rock bottom.

Our protagonist is Dorothy, a housewife residing in the suburbs of California stuck in a stagnant, loveless marriage. With the unexpected death of their son, Scotty, during a routine operation as well as a miscarriage thereafter, Dorothy is tormented by grief and despair. Her relationship with Fred has reached breaking point. Resentment brews between the two as they silently blame each other for these twin tragedies. The sense of hopelessness has reached a stage where both are too tired to even divorce. And so they stumble along…staring into an uncertain future.

During those days there were times when Dorothy would lean her head against the wall and seem to herself to be no longer living because she was no longer a part of any world in which love was possible.

Dorothy’s days are filled with household chores, frequent shopping trips, cooking meals; tasks that lack variety and signify mind-numbing tedium. The demarcation between days seems blurred pushing her into a state of apathy. A part of her is even aware that Fred is sleeping with other women, but she is now indifferent. She does derive some joy from her friendship with Estelle, a divorced woman with two grown-up children, and the two women often spending time together chatting about themselves and their lives, discussing their problems and providing each other emotional support.

Whenever she was with Estelle, Dorothy became louder, more childish and happier than when she was with anyone else.

But when one day, Larry, the frogman, lands in Dorothy’s kitchen, her life alters unexpectedly and in ways she has not imagined.

Dorothy is aware of Larry’s history from bits she has gleaned from the radio news. Having been captured from the Gulf of Mexico, Larry had been installed at the Jefferson Institute of Oceanographic Research as a specimen for scientific analysis and study. Rebelling against the continuous ill-treatment meted out to him, Larry manages to escape but not before he kills two scientists on his path to freedom.  The institute brands the incident as murder, for Larry it’s an act of self-preservation.

The reader immediately senses the perceptible shift in Dorothy’s circumstances;  a chance for excitement, love and adventure…a development that pushes her head above water, breathing new life into her, just when she was slowly and steadily sinking.  As Larry and Dorothy embark on a passionate affair, her world begins to light up, the days are suffused with colour and there’s a sharp clarity to the way she views the people and situations around her.

There, up in the sky, she noticed for the first time a gigantic mounded cloud, as large and elaborately moulded as a baroque opera house and lit from below and at the sides by pink and creamy hues. It sailed beyond her, improbable and romantic, following in the blue sky the course she was taking down below. It seemed to her that it must be a good omen.

What makes Mrs Caliban unique is not just its unusual premise but also how rich the novel is in terms of themes explored. We learn about the gradual disintegration of Fred and Dorothy’s marriage, and decline in Dorothy’s mental health exacerbated by the death of her son and the miscarriage. It’s a loss she is left to grieve alone; their marriage left in tatters leaves no room for the couple to help each other through this difficult time.

Another theme touched upon is the beauty of new ways of seeing and perceiving things. Being an aquatic creature, his new surroundings are a novelty to Larry. But as Dorothy begins to view the world through Larry’s eyes fuelled by his questions on basic human behaviour and traits, she is forced to think a lot and even question many of the things that she otherwise took for granted or about which she didn’t much care previously.

The novel is also radical in the way it questions gender roles. The Calibans find themselves ensconced in traditional gender stereotypes – Fred earns the income, while Dorothy’s role is reduced to that of a housewife following the same unvarying routine day in and day out. But that changes with the arrival of Larry. With no qualms or knowledge about the pigeonholing of roles, Larry is more than willing to chip in and learn to perform a slew of chores, easing some of the burden off Dorothy. Mrs Caliban is an exploration of love and sexual freedom; Dorothy’s affair with Larry is a revelation to her, and makes her feel alive after years of being trapped in an airless marriage. At a time, when women were expected to put up with their husbands having affairs, Dorothy refuses to follow what’s expected of her by society, choosing instead to seek some modicum of happiness in the manner she deems fit.

Furthermore, the novel is a statement on how society perceives outsiders with contempt and suspicion rather than compassion, inclusiveness and understanding. We are shown how narrowly defined and restrictive the definition of “normal” is, how anything outside that constricted space is immediately looked upon with venom, violence and hate. Being an amphibian man, Larry is branded  an outcast by the scientific community as well as the general population, a creature to be captured and tortured, rather than accepting him for who he is and treating him with more respect. Thus, despite being a tender, caring man, often Larry finds himself pushed into the corner by aggressive behaviour of the people around him and compelled to use violence as the only form of self-defense.

Above all else though, Mrs Caliban is a tale of the re-invention of a woman, her journey from a state of abject depression to that of rejuvenation and self-discovery – an evergreen theme which also forms the essence of another novel I read and loved recently – Tessa Hadley’s wonderful novel Free Love.

Within the broader strange outline of its plot, the novel has an interior logic all its own. In fact, Mrs Caliban is a testament to Ingalls’ excellent storytelling ability that she is able to blend the fantastical with the mundane to greater effect and on the strength of her assured writing the reader is willing to be led along in whichever direction she takes us. The foreword by Irenosen Okojie in my edition highlights how the book has influenced several people in the fields of art and culture – Guillermo del Toro’s award-winning The Shape of Water, particularly, is a prime example. In a nutshell, Mrs Caliban is an excellent novella, a magical, subversive fairytale and its themes of gender stereotypes and the isolation of people who don’t fit in remain relevant even today.

The Mermaid of Black Conch – Monique Roffey

The Mermaid of Black Conch has been making waves on the prize circuit. It won the Costa Book of the Year in 2020 and was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize that same year. Three months into 2021, the novel also found a place on the shortlists of both the Folio Rathbones Prize and the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. These achievements are pretty remarkable for a book that at one point was almost not published.

The Mermaid of Black Conch is a lovely, bittersweet, fable-like story with a mermaid at its centre, encompassing weighty themes of womanhood, desire, slavery, animal rights, and our attitude towards outsiders.

The tale is set in April 1976 in St Constance, a tiny village on the Caribbean island of Black Conch. Our protagonist is Aycayia, a beautiful young woman who has been cursed by jealous wives to live her life as a mermaid and she has been swimming in the Black Conch waters for many centuries now.

One day, while strumming his guitar on one part of the coast, a young fisherman called David spots Aycayia rising above the water, staring intently at him. David is entranced by her, by how exotic she is. Subsequent attempts to glimpse her turn futile, and then after many days he spots her again. Clearly, he is bowled over by her and Aycayia, in turn, is mesmerized by David’s singing.

But then things take a turn for the worse when a couple of American fishermen arrive at the village to participate in a fishing competition. Thomas Clayson is hoping that this expedition will enable some bonding between him and his son Hank, who he thinks spends too much time reading. He wants to enforce in his son, his twisted ideas of masculinity. Enlisting some locals as their crew, the Claysons embark on their fishing trip and manage to entrap Aycayia, who is unwittingly lured towards their ship by David. Aycayia struggles for several hours, but is ultimately defeated…the Americans capture, gag and bind her and take her onshore. As the revelry and celebrations begin full swing at the village inn, David stealthily tiptoes towards where she’s held hostage and rescues her.

He takes her home. From thereon, not only does he start taking care of her with great tenderness, but Aycayia also begins her transformation back to a woman. She loses her mermaid tail, her fins and scales, and must now learn to walk and talk the language of the island.

Zoom to another section, and we are introduced to the character of Arcadia Rain, a white woman and a landlady who owns practically much of the Black Conch island. Arcadia lives alone in a mansion atop a hill with her deaf son. Her partner, a black man called Life, abandons her while pregnant, because he can’t stand being ‘owned’ by a white woman and craves to make a name for himself in the art world. Arcadia hates him and yearns for him at the same time.

Every afternoon, around three o’clock, David dropped Aycayia to Miss Rain’s for lessons. There at the table in the grand room with wooden floors, sat an indigenous woman of the Caribbean; cursed to be a mermaid by her own sisterhood, whose people had all but died out, slaughtered by the Castilian Admiral and his kind; a woman who, as a mermaid, was pulled out of the sea by Yankee men who wanted to auction her off and if not that, stuff her and keep her as a trophy; a woman who was rescued by a Black Conch fisherman; a mermaid who had come back to live as a woman of the Caribbean again. She sat quietly as she learnt language again, from another woman she wasn’t sure she could trust. This woman was white, dappled with freckles, and no matter what she wasn’t, she was of the type who had wiped her people out. Arcadia [Rain] was self conscious, because she only spoke Black Conch English, a mixture of words from the oppressor and the oppressed.

Other characters dotting the story are Priscilla, an evil, bitter woman, who in her greed for money making schemes does not care about hurting others. And a policeman whose help she enlists when she notices something ‘fishy’ going on in David’s home.

All these various story threads come together as the novel reaches its dramatic conclusion. But, will this fairy-tale like story have a happy ending?

The narrative structure is interesting. In every chapter, there’s blend of a third person voice, David’s diary entries some 40 years later recalling his time with Aycayia, and Aycayia’s unique voice presented to us like free-verse poems.

There’s a lot going on in The Mermaid of Black Conch and it is rife with some big ideas. One of them is the legacy of slavery and its burden on subsequent generations. Arcadia Rain is a fair woman and treats the island people well but the taint of her ancestors’ actions (they were plantation owners keeping slaves) sticks to her even when she is trying to erase that blot.

The other dominant viewpoint displayed to the reader is the cruelty perpetrated on outsiders, on people who are significantly different from us. Plus, the novel could also be interpreted as a statement on how exotic creatures are seen through a prism of unabashed greed and shameless profiteering. These themes are explored though the despicable actions of both the American fishermen and Priscilla.

There are some beautiful moments in the book – the blooming of love between David and Aycayia, and the special bond formed between Aycayia and Arcadia’s deaf son as both navigate the intricacies of language and communication.

But The Mermaid of Black Conch is also a novel about womanhood and desire. When Aycayia’s transformation into a woman is complete, the attraction between her and David sparkles like electricity and they give in to desire. Hell-bent on learning the ropes about relationships, David for once is clear about not engaging in flings, but instead taking their relationship to the next level. But is that what Aycayia wants? Aycayia is content being a woman and learning things anew, but she also yearns for the sea where she has spent such a large part of her life. And while her life on land broke the shackles of her curse which bound her in a mermaid’s body, will marriage feel like a trap again?

I want to stay my woman self

even here when my people long dead

I want to be here on land again

but deep inside I know there is still some mix up

I am still half and half

half woman and half cursed woman

cursed still in this new place

The sea is a strong pull

Despite some amount of melodrama in the final pages (the bad guys chasing the good guys in a Hindi movie potboiler kind of way), The Mermaid of Black Conch is a story with a big heart, a beautiful, seamless amalgam of the mythical with the real, and a novel where Roffey pushes the boundaries while exploring myriad motifs of enduring love, racial tension and Caribbean folklore.

Twelve Nights – Urs Faes (tr. Jamie Lee Searle)

Set in the Black Forest in the deeps of winter, Twelve Nights is a wonderfully atmospheric novella of family, love, guilt, reconciliation and redemption.

The book opens with our protagonist, Manfred, traversing a snowy landscape on foot, making his way to his family home, a place he has not visited in the last forty odd years. The sole occupant of the house now is his younger brother, Sebastian, a recluse hardly ever seen by the people in the village. At the village inn, Manfred learns of the aura of bad luck surrounding Sebastian – the farm is falling apart and his wife Minna is long dead.

On his trek and even later when he is settled in his lodgings, Manfred is haunted by the ghosts of his past…memories which had lain buried deep in his mind, come floating to the surface. He reminisces about his father, mother, Sebastian, and his own love for Minna, an unwavering love whose flame is tragically extinguished.

A story rooted in folklore, tradition, and superstitions, Manfred reflects on the rituals performed by his mother to ward off evil spirits especially during the twelve-day period between Christmas and Epiphany.

The image of his mother’s face had always been there, all this time. Year in and year out, she had told stories about these nights, the Twelve Nights, Dodecameron, which threatened disorder and peril through the work of dark forces, the abysses gaping open: a disaster which drew even closer, towards the feast of St Thomas, New Year’s Eve, and Epiphany. She would put juniper berries in the incense burner, adding fir and spruce needles, an activity that seemed to calm her, as though it gave her stability and certainty. No misfortune could strike her then, neither her nor her family.

He ruminates on the bond he shared with Sebastian and their differing personalities – Sebastian is quiet, a man of very few words, awkward, while he is quite the opposite. His younger brother not quite fit for hard farm work, it seems quite certain that Manfred will inherit the farm.

But more importantly, Manfred dwells on Minna, the love of his life, certain then that they were destined to marry since Minna too reciprocated his feelings. Displaying a deep love for the land, Minna and Manfred build plans about their future only to see them wither away.

The root of this is a development that jolts Manfred and shocks him to the core. Unleashing a wave of anger in Manfred so deep and intense, he is driven by an act of revenge that has devastating consequences. Unable to come to terms with this, he relocates to a bigger town and loses all contact with his family including Minna. And yet, his torch turns bright for Minna, he can’t forget her, his Minna who goes on to marry Sebastian. Now, visiting his roots after all these years, Manfred is plagued with guilt and regret.

Twelve Nights, then, is lush with writing that is poetic, spare, and haunting. It’s a novella replete with dreamy prose and vivid imagery and packs a slew of weightier themes in a miniscule package – the debilitating consequences of revenge, crippling guilt, a piercing sense of loss, and a profound hope of reconciliation.

The book is awash with gorgeous descriptions of a winter landscape – vistas of enchanting icicles, deep drifts of snow, a misty haze that hangs over the village, the all-encompassing quiet and silence spurred on by the densely falling snowflakes, the leaden gloom of the forest.

Outside, through the window, the snow was falling once more; a creeping dusk blurred the contours, turning the trees into wizened forms, the stream to a taffeta-grey ribbon, the farmhouses to shadowy distorting mirrors.

At its very core, this is a novella about the complexity of family relationships. Unspeakable tragedies can rip apart the fabric of family life, but it is not always easy to entirely sever ties. As the years pile on, and we grow older, the idea of loneliness haunts us, the inner cries for reconciliation only grow louder and a deep-rooted desire for redemption emerges above all else. These are the feelings that confront Manfred as he hopes to make amends. A lovely, wintry read, Faes ends the novella in such a way that the reader can interpret it anyway he/she chooses.

Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes was the first book I read by Sylvia Townsend Warner and it was a joy. I read it last month but am writing about it now because I have been struggling in general to write. Luckily, my reading has been progressing steadily and that’s a big plus in these trying times.

Lolly Willowes is wonderful tale of a single woman looking to lead an independent life by breaking away from the controlling clutches of her family.

Till her late twenties, Lolly is shown to lead a pretty sheltered life in the country where her father has a brewing business and an estate called Lady Place. While Lolly has two elder brothers Henry and James, it is quite clear from the start that Mr Willowes is attached to his daughter. The eldest son Henry shows no aptitude for running the family business, preferring to practice law in London instead. He soon moves to the city, marries Caroline, establishes a home, and starts a family.

James, though, is interested in brewery and begins to learn the ropes. Eventually, he marries too and along with his wife Sibyl settles down at Lady Place.

Meanwhile, Mrs Willowes passes away, and the running of the household falls on Lolly’s shoulders, which she accepts as a matter of course. However, Lolly shows no interest in marriage whatsoever. On one hand, her father feels guilty that he is not doing his duty in finding a suitable match for her, but he does not want to lose her company either.

With the death of Mr Willowes, Lolly’s idyllic life in the countryside comes to an end. Henry and Caroline decide that she is to come to London and stay with them. A spare room in the house is converted into a bedroom for Lolly and soon she is neck deep in the day to day household chores along with Caroline, shopping and looking after the children.

It is during that phase in her life that a sense of restlessness and foreboding begins to creep into Lolly. A London existence with its grinding routine increasingly depresses her.

She was subject to a peculiar kind of day-dreaming, so vivid as to be almost a hallucination: that she was in the country, at dusk, and alone, and strangely at peace. While her body sat before the first fires and was cosy with Henry and Caroline, her mind walked by lonely seaboards, in marshes and fens, or came at nightfall to the edge of a wood.

Her mind was groping after something that eluded her experience, a something that was shadowy and menacing, and yet in some way congenial; a something that lurked in waste places, that was hinted at by the sound of water gurgling through deep channels and by the voices of birds of ill omen. Loneliness, dreariness, aptness for arousing a sense of fear, a kind of ungodly hallowedness – these were the things that called her thoughts away from the comfortable fireside.

Lolly is now in her mid-forties, feels trapped and stultified, and longs for a change. During one of her shopping trips, she chances upon a flower shop and learns of a village in the Chilterns called the Great Mop. Soon she begins poring over books and maps on the place. It’s a region that tickles her fancy and on a whim she decides to establish herself there and live independently.

The first half of Lolly Willowes proceeds conventionally as Lolly sinks into domestic routines both at Lady Place and in London, her role in both these houses being taken for granted. It’s in the second half that the novel slips into a bit of whimsy and magic as ‘witches’ comes into play, but it’s all quite charming and more importantly Sylvia Townsend Warner pulls it off.

One doesn’t become a witch to run round being harmful, or to run round being helpful either…It’s to escape all that-to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others…

The one big theme in Lolly Willowes is the position of women in society. This novel was first published in 1926 and at the time a woman living by herself was probably unheard of. In the novel, it is expected that when the mother died, Lolly has to manage the household duties and when both the parents are no more, it is assumed that she is now the responsibility of the elder brother Henry. So much so that when she expresses her desire to carve a life for herself on her own in the country, Henry takes it as a personal affront. In those days, the concept of a woman leading an independent life was not the norm – if she was not married, she was expected to stay under her family’s wing.

Lolly refreshingly chooses to eventually defy these conventional societal roles. It’s a statement that even in the mid or late forties, it is never too late for a woman to entirely change her course of life if she really wants to.

I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded…There they are, child-rearing, house-keeping…And all the time being thrust down into dullness…I tell you that sort of thing settles down on one, like a fine dust…

There is a dreadful kind of dreary immortality about being settled down on by one day after another…They (women) are like the trees towards the end of summer, heavy and dusty, and nobody finds their leaves surprising, or notices them till they fall off. If they could be passive and unnoticed, it wouldn’t matter. But they must be active, and still not noticed.

The other interesting fact about the novel is that it was published around three years before Virginia Woolf released one of her famous books – A Room of One’s Own.

In this regard, Alison Lurie in my NYRB Classics edition very aptly states:

Woolf was to make much the same point, saying that if a woman is to be more than a convenient household appliance, if she is to have a life of her own, and especially if she wants to be a writer, she must have freedom and privacy and “a room of one’s own.” She spoke, we know now, for thousands of women then and in years to come. But Sylvia Townsend Warner had spoken for them first.

Sudden Traveller – Sarah Hall

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.

Faber & Faber Hardback Edition
The front cover image is from ‘Mother and Daughter’, 1913 by Egon Schiele

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.