The Beautiful Indifference

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Sarah Hall is a writer whom I have long admired from a distance. Every new book would find me on the verge of making her acquaintance, but for some reason I would hang back, shy of taking that final step. Until, that is, I discovered a copy of her short story collection, The Beautiful Indifference, in a second hand bookshop last summer. The title itself seemed a reprimand to my previous lack of passion, and a short story collection seemed the ideal way to get to know her. Hall herself is a writer well versed in passion, both the raw emotion of relationships and the redder urges of nature itself. She also seems to be able to range across class with her characters in a way that most writers find difficult to do.

Sex is a central concern of a number of the stories. In the title story the narrator awaits her younger lover. Her friends regard the affair as “avoiding the hard stuff” by which they mean settling down and having a family:

“Perhaps she was not entitled to the sex after all. Or the radiance.”

What seems a life-affirming story about sexual fulfilment, however, inverts completely when we discover the narrator’s tragic family background and her own plans, with her childless state more a burden than a freedom. More straight-forward is ‘The Agency’ where the narrator, on the recommendation of a friend, visits a male escort agency, so tastefully run that she is convinced “the agency had been conceived by a woman.” The story itself has a playful tone with such lines as:

“The marks around my wrists I would have to cover until they faded.”

Sex is more problematic in ‘Bees’, a fantastic example of how to use the second person. Here, the central character has left her husband for London, remembering “you never said no when he wanted to.” In the description which follows the ‘you’ is particularly effective in convincing the reader of the abusive nature of the relationship. In every case Hall develops the sexual aspect of the story without prurience, as an insight to character, and with a recognition of the way desire can drive lives.

The violent passions of sex are often accompanied by the equally wild and irrational workings of nature. In ‘Bees’ the protagonist’s observation of the insects’ demise seems linked to her own hopeless situation, living with a friend and unable to get a job. It is difficult to read the appearance of a fox at the end as hopeful:

“It is as if the creature has been stoked up from the surroundings, its fur like a furnace, eyes sparkling…The jaws open and snap shut, and as it lands it shakes its red head furiously.”

Its contrast to the ‘pale’, ‘discreet’ foxes of the north, it suggests a savage, alien city where gentler creatures, like the bees, are not at home. In ‘The Beautiful Indifference’ Hall literally drives a horse and cart through the story, the horse out of control, and breaking from the carriage:

“The shire kicked away, its reins trailing, its eye white-cupped and livid.”

While the narrator’s lover, a doctor, calmly goes to aid the driver, the narrator is frozen, staring in the horse’s wake, its passing having caused an inexplicable but irreparable rift in her life. Best of all, in ‘She Murdered Mortal He’, nature becomes enmeshed with a fractured relationship when the protagonist stalks an African beach after a row with her lover and senses an animal following her:

“She did not want to look behind again…The dress she was wearing was low-backed. The flesh felt exposed. She was all meat, all scent.”

The dog turns out to be friendly, and she meets it again on the return journey:

“The muzzle was wet and when she lifted it up to look underneath she could see it was dark and shiny.”

Only when she is back at the hotel does the terrifying possibility of the dog’s dual nature rear its head, opening up two readings of the story. In one, the couple have been subject to an ironic accident; in the other the dog becomes an avatar for deep-lying feelings within the relationship.

Another three stories feature, ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ also being a stand-out. Hall is as good as I hoped she might be; I wish I’d met her sooner.

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8 Responses to “The Beautiful Indifference”

  1. poppypeacockpens Says:

    Haven’t read any Sarah Hall yet (although have a copy of Electric Michelangelo) so yes, this sounds a good place to start… Yet another one for the post #tbr20 spree

    • 1streading Says:

      I know – I’m a bit worried that this will all end in a book splurge that will put me right back where I started! However, I’m really glad #tbr20 has encouraged me to try her – I’ve had the book since last summer, having put off reading her for a number for years before that!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Great review, Grant. I read this collection a couple of years ago and it was my first encounter with Sarah Hall, too. There’s something earthy and visceral about her writing, and I think you’ve caught the feel of it in the quotes you’ve chosen.

    • 1streading Says:

      Thank you. I think that ‘earthy, visceral’ feel comes across even more strongly in some of the stories I didn’t say much about like ‘Butcher’s Perfume’.
      Did you go onto read anything else? I definitely plan to

      • JacquiWine Says:

        Only another couple of her short stories which I listened to via podcasts (Mrs Fox won the BBC short story award a year or so ago). I’ll be interested to see what you read next!

  3. naomifrisby Says:

    Yes, yes, yes, yes. Now, The Electric Michelangelo and on to the new one, The Wolf Border, when it’s published. I’m 1/3 of the way through and doing something I never do – reading a little at a time – because it’s so well written. If the rest’s as good, I want it to take every major prize this year – frankly, it’s about time.

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