The Friend – Sigrid Nunez

The Friend is a beautiful, poignant novel of grief, love, loss, writing and more importantly the uniqueness of dogs and what makes them the best of companions.

The book opens with a suicide. We learn that the narrator, an unnamed woman, has just lost her lifelong best friend who chooses to end his life. Like the woman, we don’t really know what caused her friend to undertake such a drastic step, there is no suicide note either to give any sort of clue.

But gradually a persona of the woman’s friend emerges. He was a professor teaching creative writing, and at one point she was his student. They have a brief affair, but their romantic relationship quickly peters out. And yet, they remain the best of friends, very close in fact, much to the envy and chagrin of his wives. We learn that the man was married thrice, but divorced twice. The wives are not named either but are referred to as Wife One, Wife Two, Wife Three. While his marriages, while they lasted, were unions based on love and passion, Wife One and Wife Two were always disturbed by the fact that they were never his confidantes in the way the narrator was.

Meanwhile, when Wife Three requests to meet our narrator, the latter is perturbed but she agrees. It seems that Wife Three has an unusual request. Now that her husband is no more, she does not know what to do with the pet he has left behind – a Great Dane called Apollo, who is ageing and pretty much on his last legs. It was the man’s wish that the narrator adopt the giant dog, but she is initially reluctant. Dogs are prohibited in the building where she resides. But when subsequent attempts to re-home the dog fail, she decides to adopt him even when the threat of eviction looms large.

One of the biggest themes explored in this lovely novel is the joy of canine companionship. With a few failed relationships behind her and now quite alone, our narrator seeks solace in Apollo’s presence. She reads Rilke’s poems to him, takes him for walks to the park, and allows him to sleep on her bed, his huge bulk is a constant source of comfort to her.

It occurs to me that someone used to read to Apollo. Not that I think he was a trained certified therapy dog. But I believe that someone must have read aloud to him – or if not to him at least while he was present – and that his memory of that experience is a happy one.

Or maybe Apollo is a canine genius who has figured something out about me and books. Maybe he understands that, when I’m not feeling so great, losing myself in a book is the best thing I could do.

Our narrator also ponders on the intelligence of dogs, whether they are capable of feelings, and the endless trouble they endure of making themselves understood to a human.

She questions – Does a dog understand betrayal? For instance, she talks about mastiffs and their great size and how they are known for being fiercely protective and loyal to their masters. But let us suppose, the master decides to abandon it one day. Will that mastiff feel betrayed? After some contemplation, Nunez decides probably not. It is more likely that the main thing on the mastiff’s mind will be – Who will protect my master now?

Another point to think about – What do we really know about animal suffering? She cites that there is evidence of dogs and animals having a higher tolerance for pain than humans do. But their true capacity for suffering, like the true measure of their intelligence, must remain a mystery.

The book is also a lyrical meditation on grief, not just grief felt by the narrator but also by Apollo. Apollo grieves in his own way for his dead master and our narrator tries various tricks to draw him out like music and massage therapies. But it is apparent to us that the narrator is also profoundly affected by the loss of her dear friend.

The friend who is most sympathetic about my situation calls to ask how I am. I tell him about trying music and massage to treat Apollo’s depression, and he asks if I’ve considered a therapist. I tell him I’m skeptical about pet shrinks, and he says, That’s not what I meant.

Maybe, what she felt for him was something deeper, it could be that she was in love with him. She doesn’t readily acknowledge this, but we know that the two of them shared a special bond, which was not sexual, but one of lasting friendship, the kind where they could easily confide and talk to each other. When our narrator wonders why she is looking after his dog, she admits that perhaps on some subconscious level, she is hoping that the love she displays towards Apollo will bring her dead friend back too.

As Apollo gradually becomes an intrinsic part of our narrator’s life, she realizes that she has been shunning her friends and acquaintances and veering more and more towards solitude. She becomes increasingly obsessed with his care to the point that she prefers his company rather than to reach out for any sort of human connection.

He has to forget you. He has to forget you and fall in love with me. That’s what has to happen.

In a way, the novel is akin to a letter that the narrator is writing to her late friend, she addresses him as ‘you’ throughout the book. Nunez’s writing is simple, lucid…and to emphasize her ideas, she relies on anecdotes and interesting references, be it books, films or newspaper articles. She particularly focuses on J.R. Ackerley’s memoir My Dog Tulip, and the intense love Ackerley felt for his pet, almost as if they were in a serious relationship. That book is new to me but I did read his We Think the World of You many years ago, which I thought was brilliant. The other book frequently mentioned is Coetzee’s Disgrace.

Filled with wry observations and keen insights into friendship, the nature of love, suicide and its implications, the art of writing and whether it is the right medium to process grief and so on, The Friend, then, is a truly wonderful book that sizzles with charm, intelligence and wisdom in equal measure.

A Change of Time – Ida Jessen (tr. Martin Aitken)

I have been having a good run with Archipelago Books in the year so far, having read and loved Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga and Difficult Light by Tomás Gonzélez. An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans was pretty impressive too, and now Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time is another worthy addition to this list.

A Change of Time is a gorgeous, reflective novel of a woman re-inventing herself after the death of her husband and reclaiming her lost sense of self, brimming with sentences that ache with beauty and sadness.

Set in a rural Danish village in the early 20th century, the story is narrated to us through the diary entries of the schoolteacher and protagonist Lilly Hoy or Fru Bagge as she is now known.

In the opening pages, we learn that Fru Bagge has been visiting the hospital every day to be near her ailing husband Vigand Bagge, who is a respected doctor in the village of Thyregod. It’s immediately clear that something is amiss, notably communication between the two is sorely lacking. It seems that Vigand, although, well aware of the serious nature of his illness, chooses to keep his wife in the dark. Even when the time comes for him to finally admit himself in the hospital, it’s with the realization that he has single-handedly made arrangements for it without his wife having any clue.

Why was I not allowed to help you when you were dying, Vigand?

On Vigand’s death, Fru Bagge, married to him for some 20 odd years, is suddenly alone and must fend for herself. Gradually, their personalities revealed to us dip by dip, give us a sense of how the Bagges were an ill-matched pair.

We were married for twenty-two years. And although it has been a time in which many things have happened – a world war, motor cars, electricity, women’s suffrage – indeed an entire world would seem to have wound down and been replaced by a new one, I would still venture that those years have been one long and unbroken day.

Vigand Bagge is a competent doctor and the villagers look upon him with awe, but he is mostly a stoic, cruel, sarcastic man lacking empathy and the requisite bedside manner. He is a practical man, sometimes extremely so, and is impatient with those who unabashedly display their weaknesses. There is a tendency in him to mock people, and here even his wife is not spared.

On his death, Vigand does his duty of providing well for Fru Bagge with clear instructions, so that she can lead her life with dignity with no worries on the financial front. But with security and comfort of money, comes the painful and inevitable knowledge that there was a serious lack of connect in their marriage. It could be that Vigand was several years older to her, and never therefore treated her on an equal footing, adopting a more condescending attitude. It was a marriage that lacked compassion and tenderness, qualities that Fru Bagge wanted more than anything from her husband, but, alas, in vain.

Can one ask a person to show that they love you? Reason, that most faithful onlooker to the tribulations of others, says no.

But what says unreason?

Vigand’s death, thus, suggests a kind of freedom for her to embrace life anew. But it also leaves in its wake a trail of bitterness for all the years she has already lost.

In my darkest moments I understand only too well what misfortune can leave a person in such a place. Bitterness is a very soft and comfortable armchair from which it is difficult indeed to extract oneself once one has decided to settle in it.

As the novel progresses, the diary entries begin alternating between Fru Bagge’s past and the present. In the immediate now, she must choose a new accommodation for herself. And in an act of defiance, she buys back the car Vigand had sold and begins to learn driving.

In stark contrast to her present, though, a series of flashbacks reveal a different facet of her personality – her growing ambition of being a teacher, and her efforts to realize that dream.

Thinking back, I almost feel envious of that young schoolmistress. In fact, there is no almost about it.

A scent of missed opportunities also wafts in the air, a sense of ‘what could have been’ – possibilities of serious relationships with a man from her student days, and later in Thyregod itself when she accepts a teaching position.

At its core, A Change of Time is a character study or a portrait of Fru Bagge/Lilly Hoy – the promise of making a mark in her youth wiped away by years of repression and being undermined in her marriage. In many ways, the book’s title heralds the dawn of a fresh start for Lilly. It is also a subtle depiction of changes that Lilly introduces or accepts to enhance the life of the village and its inhabitants, particularly, in the teaching profession, and also in many ways, one of the various lifelines thrown to her to help her regain her lost bearings after Vigand’s death.

Atmospheric and lyrically written, A Change of Time is wonderfully slow-paced in a way that is soothing for the soul and swells with warmth and tenderness, but is also suffused with a tinge of sadness and melancholia. Inherently inward-looking and fraught with potent silences, it’s a novel of finely etched characters and restrained emotions…and a quiet meditation on things left unsaid, finding pleasure and a sense of purpose in the smallest of things, and a chance of having a second go at life.

We are often told that being alone is a harbinger of loneliness, but there is nothing worse than being lonely in a marriage. While it’s perfectly fine to feel disoriented at first, if the end of a debilitating relationship means a newfound hope for freedom and joy, then it’s worth embracing it with open arms.

This strange gravity, the peculiar peace that descends in the evenings when the houses turn inwards and people retire to bed. I have begun to expect it, to look forward.

Difficult Light – Tomás González (tr. Andrea Rosenberg)

Difficult Light by Colombian author Tomás González is a poignant, beautiful book touching upon big themes of family, loss, art and the critical question of whether death can provide relief from a life filled with chronic pain.  

Our narrator is David, a painter by profession, who is now residing alone in a village in his native Colombia since the death of his wife, Sara, a couple of years ago. David’s specialty is capturing light in his paintings, and he has earned some renown for his craft. However, in his old age, David’s eyesight is failing because of macular degeneration, and he is gradually turning blind. The forms and shapes he discerns appear fluid and liquid rather than distinct and concrete. Thus, forced to give up painting, David turns to writing instead and this book in a way is his attempt to record some of the most difficult moments in his past.

In brief we learn that David and Sara marry in their early twenties, and despite some initial hiccups, theirs is a healthy marriage, only strengthened as the years roll by. Along with their three sons – Jacobo, Pablo and Arturo – the couple, after a brief stint in Miami, eventually move to New York. Sara and the boys settle down quickly in the megapolis, she in her new position as a counselor in a hospital, and the boys in college. David finds it difficult initially to adapt to the city, the noise is too much and the space is cramped. But a move to a larger apartment with a lot of light streaming in does wonders and David begins to make some strides in his art. With things coasting along smoothly, those are some of the happiest times that he recalls. And then tragedy strikes.

An inkling of this is provided in the first chapter itself. Indeed, I had to read the last couple of lines twice to make sense of what is happening, was it a translation mistake?

“…until I was awakened at seven by the knot of grief in my belly at the death of my son Jacobo, which we’d scheduled for seven that night, Portland time, ten o’clock in new York.”

The background to this development is this – Jacobo is on his way home in a taxi, when an oncoming vehicle driven by a drunk junkie rams into it. The taxi driver emerges unscathed, but Jacob’s life is shattered. The accident leaves Jacobo paralyzed from the waist below. But the irony is that while his lower body is now useless, the pain completely engulfs him. So soul crushing and immense it is that he begins to wonder whether death is not a better option.

This particular development and its harrowing consequences form the bulk of the book. Jacobo and Pablo, who in many ways is Jacobo’s anchor now, travel to Portland to induce death enlisting the help of a doctor.

I enjoyed nearly two years of artistic plenitude, a happiness that also brought with it pangs of anguish: I was finding treasures everywhere, like someone for whom the stones in the road were suddenly gemstones. How could I have known what was coming! Misfortune is always like the wind: natural, unforeseeable, effortless…

We are also shown a window into David and Sara’s personalities – David is the silent, melancholy type, while Sara is more extroverted and warm and able to connect with people better. David and Sara are extremely supportive of Jacobo’s decision, and yet the impending death of their eldest son is a source of heartbreak as well. When the doctor postpones the procedure by a few hours, David and Sara are filled with hope that maybe the doctor might not arrive or that Jacobo might change his mind. This heightens the narrative tension of the story, as the reader, while aware that his death is inevitable, is still left wondering whether Jacobo might not go through with it after all.

Difficult Light, then, is an unblinking meditation on grief, loss and our capacity for pain as humans. At a fundamental level, it questions whether an individual has the right to end his life rather than live an undignified existence of unrelenting pain. David and Sara, in their ways, understand the unbearable ordeal his son has to endure on a daily basis, and yet the hell that Jacobo experiences is something that only he can fathom.

Interspersed with this central theme, are David’s reflections on his paintings and the light he is always trying to capture. David also wrestles with the notion of fame. He craves for it in his earlier years, only for it to be denied. It’s only after Jacobo’s accident that fame and money come knocking on his door, and the irony is not lost on David – now he wants to shun the limelight, but has to grudgingly accept that the money is crucial for Jacobo’s treatment.

What I also liked in the book is the portrayal of David’s family. On the day of Jacobo’s scheduled death, the family members and friends gather around in their house to show support – not by continuously doling out words of comfort, but by just being there. The palpable sense of tension and anxiety is punctuated by moments of talk and camaraderie as the family navigates the seemingly endless hours of waiting.

So many years have passed since then that even the pain in my heart has gradually dried up, like the moisture in a piece of fruit, and only rarely now am I suddenly shaken by the memory of what happened, as if it happened yesterday, and swallow hard to contain a sob. But it does still happen, and I nearly double over with grief. But at other times, I think of my son, and then I feel such warmth that in those moments it even seems to me that life is eternal, restful and eternal, and pain is an illusion.

González’s prose is crystal clear, limpid and sensitive whether he is describing the anguish of his characters, the debilitating impact of grief as well as the healing power of art especially the joy of nailing it right. When showcasing the family’s plight around Jacobo’s fate, González is compassionate without being overtly sentimental. It’s a beautiful book that dwells on the intimacy and humour of a family, of displaying resilience amid pain, and as another author has put it, “manages to say new things about the way we feel.”

The Other Name (Septology I-II) – Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

I had not read anything by Jon Fosse before but when The Other Name (Septology I-II) was longlisted for the International Booker Prize this year, I was greatly interested. The book ultimately failed to make it to the shortlist, and after having just finished it, I wish it had. I loved this novel.  

The Other Name is an intense and deeply introspective novel about an ageing painter reminiscing about his life, where elements of the everyday and the existential flow into one another, while touching upon big topics of life and death, love and grief, and the process of art.

Our protagonist, Asle is an ageing painter who lives alone in the small town of Dylgja in southwest Norway. When the novel opens, Asle is standing before his newest painting – a canvas depicting two lines intersecting in the middle – and is contemplating whether it’s a piece of work that satisfies him.

And I see myself standing and looking at the picture with the two lines that cross in the middle, one purple line, one brown line, it’s a painting wider than it is high and I see that I’ve painted the lines slowly, the paint is thick, two long wide lines, and they’ve dripped, where the brown line and the purple line cross the colours blend beautifully and drip and I’m thinking this isn’t a picture but suddenly the picture is the way it’s supposed to be…

Asle is a widower, having lost his wife Ales many years earlier, and leads a solitary existence. He is religious and a teetotaler having given up drinking years ago at the insistence of his wife. His only friends seem to be his neighbour Asleik, a fisherman-farmer, and Beyer, who is the gallery owner in the city of Bjorgvin.

Asle’s shows are held annually in the Beyer Gallery, which is located in Bjorgvin, a few miles away from Dylgja. This entails trips to Bjorgvin on some days to procure art supplies and also to deliver his final paintings. Asle is not comfortable commuting in big cities, and Beyer assigns him a designated parking space, making things easier for Asle.

At the same time, the reader is introduced to the other Asle who stays near Bjorgvin, in Sailor’s Cove. This Asle is also an ageing painter and lives alone in his home. But there the similarities end. Bjorgvin Asle is an atheist and an alcoholic with two failed marriages behind him. He has children from both his marriages, but they don’t keep in touch. The only person who cares enough for him is Dylgja Asle.

Are both Asle and Asle doppelgangers? Or is the second Asle an alternate version of the first Asle – of what the latter’s life would have been had he not stopped drinking?

There is not much in the way of plot in the novel and the drama is mostly internal, as the characters think about the present and hark back to the past. The crux of the plot then is this – While Asle drives back home to Dylgja from his trip to Bjorgvin, he regrets not having stopped at Sailor’s Cove to check on the other Asle. He reaches home, puts all his purchases on the kitchen table, has a long conversation with his neighbour Asleik, and decides to drive back to Bjorgvin the same day to make sure the other Asle is all right (which he is not) even though it is getting dark and there’s a snowstorm on the anvil.

And yet it’s a unique novel with the power to transfix the reader. That’s largely because of the quality of writing that takes it to a whole new level. Fosse has employed what is called ‘slow prose’, a circular narrative technique, which reminded me of Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters. There are no breaks in the paragraphs except when the characters are conversing, and the sentences are punctuated with commas and no full stops. But while Bernhard’s tone is more of a rant, Fosse’s novel is meditative and personal. Reading this novel feels like being at sea – the endless repetitions and rhythmic quality of the prose is akin to the ebb and flow of waves crashing on a beach. Or, there is a sense that you are listening to the chorus in your favourite song again and again. It has a soothing and calming effect.

There are some beautiful passages in the book which dwell on Asle wanting to perfect and hone his craft. He loves the stream of light in his paintings as do his eventual buyers, but he emphasizes that it’s only when he highlights the shadows and the darkness in this pictures, does the light shine through.

…I’ve sometimes thought that’s why I became a painter, because I have all these pictures inside me, yes, so many pictures that they’re a kind of agony, yes, it hurts me when they keep popping up again and again, like visions almost, and in all kinds of contexts, and I can’t do anything about it, the only thing I can do is paint, yes, try to paint away these pictures that are lodged inside me, there’s nothing to do but paint them away, one by one…

The book is also a meditation on grief and death. It becomes obvious as the novel progresses that Asle deeply grieves for his wife Ales. This is presented to the reader in the form of vivid forays into his past where he relives moments with his wife particularly when they were young and courting.

…and I’ve never missed it, not the beer, not the wine, not the stronger stuff, but that’s because of her too, because of Ales, without her I never would have been able to stop needing to drink, I think, and now Ales is waiting for me, she and our child, and I need to get home to them, to my wife, to our child, but what am I thinking? I live alone there, I’m going home to my old house in Dylgja where I used to live with Ales but she’s gone now, she’s with God now, in a way I can feel so clearly inside me, because she’s there inside me too, she isn’t walking around on earth any more but I can still talk to her whenever I want to, yes, it’s strange, there’s no big difference or distance between life and death…

In this regard, there’s a wonderful set piece in the early part of the novel. Dylgja Asle is driving back home from his trip to Bjorgvin and passes a playground where he sees a young couple on the swings. Are those two people real or is it a figment of his imagination?

…come on, come on, just come over here, she says and then he takes off his brown shoulder-bag and puts it down next to the sandpit and takes off his long black coat and lays it over her and then he covers the both of them with the coat so that only his coat is visible and, no, I have no right to look, to watch this, I think, and is it really happening? or is it all just something I’m dreaming? or is it something that actually happened to me once?

It seems more likely that the couple is a younger version of Asle and Ales in their earlier days. Ales is on the swing, and Asle begins pushing her swing hard. Ales is terrified and implores him to stop, but Asle keeps pushing anyway. Suddenly, Ales begins to enjoy thoroughly and begs Asle to continue. It’s a lovely section in the novel and wonderfully brings to the fore, the charm of adults when they occasionally display the inner child in them.

Death and sickness pervades the life of the other Asle in Bjorgvin. Wrecked by drink and loneliness, Asle is at the end of his tether and contemplates suicide. He is rescued by Dylgja Asle in time and taken to a hospital where the latter spends a sleepless night worrying.

The Other Name is also a book of many contradictions. Asle wants his art to be displayed in the gallery and yet he wants to keep his best paintings himself and not sell them. His wife’s death instills a feeling of loneliness in Asle and yet he does not really crave company except that of his neighbour Asleik. The other Asle drinks heavily to stop his tremors which are the result of his relentless drinking in the first place.

Despite the reflective tone of the novel, it is not without its fair share of tension. There is a particular set piece in the middle of the novel where Dylgja Asle has reached Bjorgvin in the middle of a raging snowstorm. With the snow obliterating the landscape, Asle loses his bearings and spends an interminable amount of time trying to locate the place to where he is heading. With no one on the streets, the whole scene feels surreal, tense and other worldly.

The Other Name is the first book in Fosse’s Septology trilogy comprising sections I and II. Both the sections begin with Asle standing before his painting as he reflects on merging of the two lines and end with him reciting prayers with his rosary beads.

It’s a brilliant book, personal, intimate and hypnotic, and asks some big questions – To what extent can certain decisions alter the course of one’s life, one that is different from someone else’s? What determines our identity – our actions or our circumstances or both?

The second book I Is For Another (Septology III-IV) has also been released by Fitzcarraldo Editions and I plan to dig into it soon.

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.