Elena Knows – Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle)

Elena Knows is a forceful, thought-provoking, unconventional crime novel where Claudia Piñeiro effectively explores a range of social concerns such as illness, caregiving, crippling bureaucracy and a woman’s choice regarding her body.

When the book opens, Elena, a woman in her sixties, is home alone waiting for the clock to strike ten. Elena suffers from Parkinson’s, a progressively devastating illness, characterized by loss of control over everyday movements.

And she wonders if Parkinson’s is masculine or feminine, because even though the name sounds masculine it’s still an illness, and an illness is something feminine. Just like a misfortune. Or a curse. And so she thinks she should address it as Herself, because when she thinks about it, she thinks ‘fucking whore illness.’ And a whore is a she, not a he. If Herself will excuse my language.

Elena is now entirely dependent on Levodopa, a drug routinely given to increase dopamine, a critical chemical in the body, a messenger of sorts that carries signals from the brain to the limbs.

And he said, an illness of the central nervous system that degrades, or mutates, or changes, or modifies the nerve cells in such a way that they stop producing dopamine. And then Elena learned that when her brain orders the feet to move, for example, the order only reaches her feet if the dopamine takes it there.

But that’s not the only matter troubling Elena. The real burden weighing heavy on her soul is the sudden, recent death of her daughter Rita. On a rainy afternoon, Rita was mysteriously and inexplicably found hanging from the bell tower in the local church. The police classify her death as suicide and close the case with no inclination to pursue the matter further.

But, Elena refuses to accept the police’s version. She’s convinced it is murder and pushes the inspector to do more, to interview potential suspects so that the true facts of Rita’s death can come to light. Because there is one aspect of her daughter’s personality that Elena knows could not have caused Rita to voluntarily visit this local place of worship. So terrified was Rita of being struck by lightning that she always chose to stay away from the church in stormy weather. And it was raining on that fateful day. That explains Elena’s conviction that Rita could not have possibly entered the bell tower (“it’s the town lightning rod”) of her own accord, someone clearly dragged her there and killed her.

The local police indulge her by meeting her regularly but don’t really take her seriously. Elena finds no solace in religion either especially since the priest insists that she put the matter to rest and move on.

When it dawns on her that there is now only one avenue left, Elena braces herself to locate Isabel, a woman Rita had “helped” twenty years ago but had lost touch since then. Elena’s mission is simple – she is hoping that by calling in an old debt, she gets the help required in catching Rita’s murderer. But given Elena’s illness, finding Isabel is a challenge akin to climbing a steep mountain. She would have to walk a few blocks to the station, ride the train, and after that either walk or taxi to Isabel’s home, hoping against hope that Isabel hasn’t relocated in all that time. It’s a game of chance; yet, Elena is resolved and feels herself equal to the task. Hence, she patiently waits for the clock to strike ten so that she can consume her next pill of the day giving her the fillip to embark on her arduous journey.

That’s the central premise of the story and I don’t want to reveal anything more. But as the novel progresses we are given a glimpse into the tenuous relationship between Elena and Rita, more colour on Rita’s belligerent personality and the crucial encounter between Rita and Isabel twenty years ago, an incident whose repercussions Elena will be compelled to deal with now. The chapters alternate between the present where Elena sets off on her journey, and the past which shines a light on the life she shared with Rita.

What makes Elena Knows so compelling is the richness of themes explored, a gamut of hard-hitting social issues. First of all, the book is an unflinching portrayal of a debilitating disease, a hard-edged look at the daily struggles of performing commonplace activities, and the loss of dignity that it involves. Among many things, the illness completely alters Elena’s perception of time, which is now not governed by the clock but pills that she has to take at hourly intervals. Once the effects of the pill wear off, Elena can’t move till she takes her next dose. Her neck perpetually droops and restricts her gaze to a certain height, and her mouth is always dribbling.  She understandably resents being helpless but is painfully aware that she has no choice. And yet, does she still have the will to live on despite her failing body?

Then there is Rita, her daughter, a dominant force in the book, even if she is now dead. Elena and Rita share a love-hate relationship. Given that both women are headstrong, fights are a regular feature when they are together, frequently hurling cruel words at each other.

They repeated the same routine everyday. The walk, the whip cracks, the distance, and finally the silence. The words changed, the reasons behind the fights were different, but the cadence, the tone, the routine, never varied…

As Elena’s disease progresses, the burden of caring for her falls on Rita, who fights through her teeth to ensure health insurance covers her mother’s mounting medical bills. This aspect of the novel brings two critical problems to the fore – the challenges of caregiving and the tediousness of having to deal with seemingly insurmountable red tape. Both these issues highlight how lack of requisite support, both practical and emotional, can make it hard for the caregiver to cope, paving the way for anxiety and depression.

Piñeiro’s bio mentions that she is an active figure in the fight for legalization of abortion in Argentina, so it’s not surprising that she also addresses this topic head-on in the novel, how every woman has the right to make her own choice regarding her body and she employs Rita’s actions as a vehicle to explore this point. As readers are made privy to a slew of Rita’s eccentricities, we are told how she avoids walking past the midwife Olga’s house and always crosses the pavement when she approaches her place. Olga also performs abortions, a fact that Rita finds hard to digest. Rita is a woman driven by her own convictions with not much respect for other people’s choices. She has fixed ideas on moral code and behaviour and an unwelcome aggressiveness in pushing her views on others. 

Roberto and Rita were united by their convictions more than anything else, that way they both had of stating the most broad, arbitrary, clichéd notions as absolute truths. Convictions about how another person should experience something they themselves had never experienced, how people should walk through life along the roads they’d walked down and the ones they hadn’t, issuing decrees about what should and shouldn’t be done.

Ultimately, both Elena and Rita are flawed, unlikeable characters (Rita, I thought, was even worse, particularly for being a busybody), but it’s hard not to feel sorry for their plight accentuated by the difficulties of Elena’s illness. As the novel hurtles towards its conclusion, Elena is forced to confront some hard truths and a possibly growing realization that her earlier opinions about many things might not hold much water. Can she bring herself to accept that at her age?

In a nutshell, Elena Knows is a riveting, tightly constructed novel that turns the crime genre on its head by providing social commentary on pressing issues that remain relevant even today. That she manages to do so by not being too preachy or sentimental only enhances the book’s power.   

My Phantoms – Gwendoline Riley

A few years ago, I was very impressed with Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, a book that received accolades and featured on many prize lists. Hence, I was quite keen to read her latest offering My Phantoms especially after all the rave reviews it has been garnering.

Family can be so complicated. This certainly holds true in My Phantoms, a brilliant, engrossing tale that explores the complexity of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship.

Our narrator is Bridget Grant, who is now in her 40s, and lives in London with her partner John and their cat Puss. Through Bridget’s eyes, we gradually begin to see a fully formed picture of her narcissistic father Lee and her emotionally detached mother Helen – parents who have continued to haunt Bridget’s psyche.

The book begins with Bridget’s recollections of her childhood and those traumatic “access” visits with their father that she and her sister Michelle could not avoid. Since Helen Grant had divorced Lee, the girls were legally mandated to spend Sundays with their father, a prospect that filled them with dread.

Riley’s evocation of the father’s self-centred personality is brilliant – he’s a man Bridget did not really think of as a person but more as a phenomenon.

I’m not sure I even thought of him as a person, really. He was more just this – phenomenon. A gripper of shoulders. A pincher of upper arms. If I was wearing a hat, a snatcher of hats. If I was reading a book, a snatcher of books. Energized bother, in short. And yes, legally mandated.

While the bulk of the book dwells on Bridget’s musings on her mother, trying to fathom the motives and thinking behind her behaviour, Bridget states how she felt no such desire to quiz her father. Her reason – he simply wasn’t an enigma like her mother. In Bridget’s words – “His nature had to generate satisfaction for itself. That was it. Getting one over. Being an exceptional case. There was nothing else. With him the difficulty came in dealing with that relentless uniformity of purpose.”

That uniformity of purpose finds various outlets, but one particularly memorable one is when Lee makes all that fuss around Bridget reading Chekhov’s Five Plays where he goes on and on about how she’s into posh Russian books. There is one specific monologue of his that is pretty incredulous and weirdly funny and leaves young Bridget speechless…

“You do know there’s no point reading things in a translation,” he said.

“Because it’s not the original language,” he explained. “It could be anything.”

“Intelligent people learn the language if they’re really interested,” he said.

“What you’re reading could be anything,” he said, again.

But My Phantoms essentially revolves around Helen Grant, Bridget’s mother. It is never explicitly stated whether there were any specific incidents in her childhood that harboured feelings of resentment or fuelled the toxic relationship between Helen and Bridget. But from the outset it is clear that their exchanges have all the makings of a performance and not always genuine.

Helen Grant is portrayed as a woman insecure on many fronts and unable to really open up. She prefers conversations that follow a certain course for her to be in a comfort zone, otherwise she gets flustered and clams up. Helen is an independent woman though. Having held a job for most of her adult life (despite hating it), she lives on a good pension and has enough funds to have a flat she can call her own (first in Liverpool, then in Manchester) and live life on her own terms.

However, what she lacks is good company. With two divorces behind her, Helen has clearly been unlucky in love. On one hand she is extroverted, attending all possible openings, concerts, jazz festivals, book readings and even engaging in volunteer work, on the other hand she hardly has any real friends to speak of or a thriving social life.

Substantial sections of the book shine the spotlight on the stilted conversations between Helen and Bridget. Although they are not always in touch, Helen makes it a point to visit London on her birthday and spend an evening with her daughter. Their conversation is often fraught with silences and the pressure to conform to a script, leaving no room for genuine communication, warmth or even unburdening oneself.

For the most part I found myself sympathizing with Bridget. Being in a situation where she has to continuously rack her brains to get their conversations going can be exhausting and frustrating. For instance, when Bridget gifts Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels to Helen on her birthday, she does so with the hope that they have much to talk about when they meet next, based on her own rewarding experience of the discussions she has had with her friends on those books. But that gesture reaches a dead end when Helen confesses to being muddled with the primary characters’ names.

But Bridget has her faults too. Although from Bridget’s point of view, Helen is not the ideal mother, Bridget is not always the ideal daughter either and is prone to making cruel remarks and coming across as quite unsympathetic. For instance, she comments on how Helen’s had two awful husbands and should not be aiming to get married again. She is uncomfortable about introducing Helen to her partner John however much Helen insists. And when Helen is ill, it is her sister Michelle who does much of the heavy lifting and running around. Bridget also leaves no stone unturned in making Helen aware of the meaninglessness of her existence – how despite engaging in so many activities and social outings, she remains essentially empty. There is one poignant moment when Helen’s defences are down, and in a rare display of vulnerability it seems that she might finally confide and express her true feelings. Bridget certainly thinks so but realizes that she has no inkling of how to deal with it or help her mother.

And again I saw that I’d got it very wrong. That it was a mean trick, suddenly to be so rational and practical in the face of her distress. It was as if I’d delicately pulled on a pair of butler’s gloves. Or passed the whole thing on to a different department.

Bridget’s tirade against her parents for judging themselves in the light of what “other people” think and say also hits closer home. While these “other people” are more often than not nebulous beings, she uses it as a medium to explore one fundamental difference between her mother and father…

I wanted to say, What bloody people? But that would have been cruel, wouldn’t it? So she had me there.

It did strike me, though, that at least those spectral associates my father raised didn’t persecute him. They were a supporting cast: a wise counsel or a happy coterie, rushing in to fill coveted positions in his court. Leave it to my poor mother to have these awful tormenting busybodies as her imaginary fellows.

Obviously, the core theme of My Phantoms is the difficulties of a complicated mother-daughter relationship. There are many facets of Helen’s personality that Bridget finds trying and yet Helen remains an integral part of her life, Bridget cannot completely cut her off. But the novel is also fascinating for the many things left unsaid, giving the reader much to think about. Bridget is haunted by her mother’s unyielding persona, but does Michelle feel the same? We know that siblings growing up in the same environment can be affected by things differently. Is Michelle tormented by her parents’ personalities to the same degree as Bridget?

Gwendoline Riley has a way with words and language that is striking. For instance, here’s how she describes Lee Grant…

And so Lee Grant strode untroubled through his subjected realm, where he was, variously, the kindly king and the swashbuckling bandit, the seen-it-all sage and the rude clown, the tender-hearted swain and the blue-eyed boy, and on and on…Exceptional cases, every one.

And here’s another snippet when Helen announces her decision to travel the world…

In order to live, in order to be Hen Grant, she had to step out of a tangle of very mouldy old rope. She had to go forth, announcingly. Relentlessly and internationally.

Riley’s prose is biting and as sharp as a scalpel, but also suffused with tender moments. The primary characters are finely etched and the dialogues between them are superb, they feel very real. In My Phantoms, then, she explores the tricky terrain of fractured familial bonds and does so with much aplomb.

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial – Maggie Nelson

The Red Parts is Maggie Nelson’s fascinating, singular account of her aunt Jane’s brutal death and the trial that took place some 35 years afterward. It is a blend of true crime and personal memoir told by Nelson in prose that is clear cut and engaging in style.

In 1969, Maggie Nelson’s aunt Jane Mixer was found dead in a cemetery in Michigan having reportedly died of two gunshot wounds. A stocking found around her neck was used to strangulate her thereafter. Her body was then dragged to the cemetery and left there, while all her personal belongings were carefully gathered and laid beside her body. Jane was on her way home for spring break, and had advertised for a car ride to her home on the college message board. She was not seen since then until her body was discovered a few miles away from the campus.

Jane’s murderer was never found. At around the same time, there were a slew of young women who were murdered by a serial killer called John Norman Collins – these killings were labeled the Michigan Murders – and it was presumed that Collins had also killed Jane although it could not be effectively proved and Collins himself denied having done so.

Meanwhile, the family moved on, but the spectre of her aunt’s death continued to haunt Maggie, who had never met her aunt. She had just released a book of poems on her called “Jane: A Murder” and goes on to describe how the whole process of trying to make sense of that murder consumed her.

But then a phone call that Maggie’s mother received in November 2004 put a new spin on things and altered their world. The Detective Sergeant on the case – Schroeder – informed them of having uncovered new DNA evidence which led to the arrest of the suspect. Profile-wise, the person charged – Gary Leiterman – was nothing like what Maggie had envisaged as her aunt’s potential murderer. A family man and mild mannered, there was no way of gauging why he would brutally murder Jane…the lack of motive was a mystery, but the science of DNA, which overwhelmingly pointed out to him, could not be ignored.

As far as the DNA samples go, there is one particularly fascinating chapter which ponders on the question of how precise DNA testing is. Besides Leiterman’s DNA on Jane’s clothes, there was a single drop of blood on her body that belonged to a prior convict Ruelas.  In 2004, Ruelas was an adult spending time in prison having murdered his mother, so he seemed like a likely suspect. But there was a problem. When Jane was murdered, Ruelas was a four-year old boy…obviously he can’t have killed Jane at that age, so how did his blood land up on her body?

One of the biggest themes that Nelson explores in this book is society’s relentless obsession with violence, particularly against women. She also touches upon how the murder of white women draws significant media attention, while the women of colour who are exposed to violence go unnoticed, as if all lives don’t equally matter.

While writing about her aunt, Nelson also reflects on her family – her parents’ divorce which bewilders her father, his subsequent death and the void it leaves in their lives, the difficulty of connecting with her then rebellious and wayward elder sister Emily, her love-hate relationship with her mom and last but not the least – the lack of warmth both Emily and she feel towards their stepfather.

Nelson particularly draws parallels between her aunt Jane and her sister Emily – both were rebels but paid a heavy price for not always conforming to societal expectations.

For as long as I can remember, this has been one of my favorite feelings. To be alone in public, wandering at night, or lying close to the earth, anonymous, invisible, floating. To be ‘a man of the crowd,’ or, conversely, alone with Nature or your god. To make your claims on public space even as you feel yourself disappearing into its largesse, into its sublimity. To practice for death by feeling completely empty, but somehow still alive.

It’s a sensation that people have tried, in various times and places, to keep women from feeling. 

But more importantly, Nelson wrestles with the fact whether it’s even her right to write about her aunt, to present her story to the world, an aunt she never personally knew, and a story that is not Nelson’s in the first place.

Nelson’s language is lyrical, precise, wonderfully controlled and she eschews any tidy resolution. Yes, the DNA evidence marks Leiterman as the man, but seeds of doubt remain. Nelson’s grandfather (Jane’s father) particularly feels that he would rather have an un-convicted man look him in the eye and confess he killed Jane rather than have a convicted man spend the rest of his life in jail maintaining his innocence.

Nelson is brilliant at depicting how the re-opening of the case after 35 years, reopens old wounds for the family and how they cope with it. For Nelson’s grandfather it feels like his daughter has died twice. Nelson’s mother recalls her fears when Jane was just murdered, that she might be the next in line. And after so many years, even if the guilty party is convicted, will the family feel any sense of closure? Or is the whole exercise pointless because Jane had been dead a long time ago and nothing can ever bring her back?

The witnesses and detectives fold and unfold this towel many times, always with a certain solemnity and formality, as if it were a flag. But the flag of what country, I cannot say. Some dark crescent of land, a place where suffering is essentially meaningless, where the present collapses into the past without warning, where we cannot escape the fates we fear the most, where heavy rains come and wash bodies up and out of their grave, where grief lasts forever and its force never fades.

Nelson wonderfully combines elements of psychoanalysis, a personal memoir that is deeply touching and an interesting crime story with a forensic portrayal of all the details that come with it – the grisly photos of Jane’s dead body, the list of items marked as evidence and an analysis of the truly perplexing enigma of the discovery of a 4-year old’s blood on Jane’s body.

The Red Parts, then, is an honest, gripping and moving account of the painful aftermath of a heinous act being committed. Maybe, writing the book itself offered some sort of a closure, however miniscule, to Nelson, or as she puts it, “Some things might be worth telling simply because they happened.”

I know what I want is impossible. If I can make my language flat enough, exact enough, if I can rinse each sentence clean enough, like washing a stone over and over again in river water, if I can find the right perch or crevice from which to record everything, if I can give myself enough white space, maybe I could do it. I could tell you this story while walking out of this story. I could—it all could—just disappear.

Actress – Anne Enright

Some years ago I had read Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz and was quite bowled over by it. The premise of the book was a theme done to death a countless times – the examination of an extra-marital affair. But Enright with her smart and spiky writing transformed it into something special. Thus, the release of her new novel Actress made me quite eager to savour her writing once more.

In Actress, our narrator is Norah FitzMaurice, now a middle-aged woman, and a writer who has been married for many years with kids. When the novel opens, her mother Katherine O’Dell – the famous actress – has been dead for some years and Norah begins to reminisce about their relationship, her ascent as a movie star, followed by her descent into madness.

In a way Norah is writing about her mother, a fictionalized biography if you will, and it is addressed to her husband, the ‘you’ in the narrative.

The first chapter begins with a snapshot of Katherine and ends with her shooting a well-known producer Boyd O’ Neil in the leg after which she is committed to an asylum.

People ask me, ‘What was she like?’ and I try to figure out if they mean as a normal person: what was she like as a mother, or what she was like an actress – we did not use the word star. Mostly though, they mean what was she like before she went crazy, as their own mother might turn overnight, like a bottle of milk left out of the fridge. Or they might, themselves, be secretly askew.

Gradually in the subsequent chapters, Katherine’s personality and life is revealed to us in layers.

Katherine is attracted to the stage at a young very age influenced by her father who is a small time actor at the time. Katherine, however, is destined for bigger things. These are days just after the war and she rises to stardom in Ireland led by her stellar performance as a nurse in a war movie that enamours audiences. Thereafter, a stint in Hollywood and all the trappings of glamour follow. It means that Katherine’s home is often frequented by men and admirers, which carries on even when her daughter is born.

Katherine does not reveal the identity of Norah’s dad, and Norah often wonders why although she imagines her father to be some sort of a hero.

I woke up one spring morning with a sudden urge to discover my DNA before I tried to pass it along. This was the missing thing. This was the rope I needed to haul my baby out of the universe and into my body. I needed to find out who I ‘was’.

Katherine, meanwhile, finds herself pandering to the men in the industry for quality roles and this in many ways gradually begins to take a toll on her mental health. For Norah, her mother’s fame and company of men bring another set of problems – unwelcome sexual advances that Norah has to grapple with.

But the book is not all about Katherine. We learn something of Norah’s life as well – the revolution in Dublin in the 70s, her own sexual awakening and her subsequent marriage. Norah goes on to build a life different from Katherine’s. In a way, she opts for a more conventional life centred around marriage and motherhood in stark contrast to Katherine’s bohemian existence.

While Katherine does enjoy the sweet fruits of success, it does not last long – a bitter truth that she struggles to accept. Actress, then, is a beautifully written novel that explores fame and the price one has to pay for it.

The nuances of the connection between Katherine and Norah is sensitively evoked – despite many challenges, mother and daughter share a deep bond.

Among the images of my mother that exist online is a black-and-white photograph of me, watching her from the wings. I am four or five years of age and sitting on a stool, in a little matinee coat and a bowl haircut. Beyond me, Katherine O’Dell performs to the unseen crowd. She is dressed in a glittering dark gown, you can not see the edges of her or the shape her figure makes, just the slice of cheekbone, the line of her chin. Her hands are uplifted.

Enright does not give too much weight to plot, and she also chooses not to tell her story in a linear fashion. Rather, the book is a more like a meditation on a mother-daughter relationship and their contrasting personalities. As usual, Enright’s writing is smart and suffused with enough wisdom and perception to bring out something new in the tale.

Overall, the novel has a very reflective feel to it, which in a way makes sense. After all, the narrator is also an author because writing about her mother gives her the time to dwell on the past and try to understand her mother more deeply in a way that will enable her to convey it all in her book.

I have read two Enrights now – Actress and The Forgotten Waltz – the latter examined an extramarital affair against the backdrop of the financial crisis in Ireland. Although Actress was excellent, I still much preferred The Forgotten Waltz where Enright’s writing was simply brilliant.

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.