Archive for the ‘Sarah Hall’ Category

The Wolf Border

May 12, 2015

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It was only a matter of time before the Scottish Independence Referendum (perhaps I should specify the 2014 referendum, so quickly does another seem to be appearing on the horizon) was used as the back-drop to a novel; more surprising is the fact that it is an English author who is first to weave it into their fiction. Sarah Hall is, of course, from Cumbria – closer to Scotland than London – and the novel’s title itself raises the question of both the purpose and validity of borders. The Wolf Border is not about the Scottish referendum – in fact, we quickly realise we are witnessing a fictional version of that event – but Hall’s determination to include it, even at risk of damaging the verisimilitude of the rest of her novel, suggests its importance. The title itself – while obviously referencing the wolves which are central to the narrative – comes from a Finnish phrase for “the boundary between the capital region and the rest of the country,” a clear reference to the disconnect that was one of the central issues of the referendum debate.

The novel centres on Rachel Caine, a woman who has spent her life studying wolves, but also escaping from her past. We find her initially in America about to embark on her first visit home in six years: her mother is dying, and she has been invited by Thomas Pennington, the Earl of Annerdale, to oversee a breeding programme he hopes will lead to the reintroduction of wolves into the wild. Rachel is sceptical (“People here don’t care about the countryside in any deep way…They just want nice walks, nice views and a tea room”) and initially refuses the position, but when she discovers she is pregnant, she decides to return home.

The Wolf Border is a novel of terrifying beginnings. The thought of wolves roaming the English countryside (even though they are initially fenced in on Pennington’s private land) is frightening to many of locals and meets opposition; Rachel herself faces the choice of whether to keep her baby or not, having never imagined herself as a mother (a product of her troubled relationship with her own mother):

“There are moments she feels genuinely joyful, irrationally so, and other times the decision to go ahead seems ludicrous, a madness.”

She also has the chance of relationship with the local vet, Alexander, having previously restricted herself to a series of sex-only encounters:

“She knows better than to assume, as she did for years, that men enjoy her casualness, her coolness, that it suits them better, or that they are less invested. It doesn’t take them long to sense that such an attitude stems from something else – a fear, a flaw, a stuntedness.”

Her brother, Lawrence, also faces choices of his own; and, in Scotland, the people must decide whether to become independent from the rest of the UK. All these choices offer a rush of joy; all, from a different angle, seem like madness.

Hall’s referendum, however, is fictional – we learn this early on when the First Minister of Scotland is referred to as Caleb Douglas (I couldn’t help wondering if this is a sly reference to William Godwin’s political novel Caleb Williams which begins when Williams enters the employment of a wealthy landowner). Any fear that this is an act of cowardice (i.e. so as not to offend anyone) on Hall’s part is dissipated when the result proves to be different. Rachel’s interest in this is largely focused on land reform – again an issue debated in the lead-up to the vote (for an interesting article on land ownership in Scotland see here). The newly independent Scotland also features in the novel’s denouement, which is largely optimistic:

“This place [the Scottish parliament] did not exist when she was a child, is less than twenty years old, but in that time much has changed, the fabric of British politics, state definitions. It can be done, she thinks, if people want it badly enough, if they are tired, and hopeful.”

The Wolf Border is, of course, concerned with much more than the referendum: ecology, class, motherhood are all important themes, and its characters, which I have hardly touched on, are the creation of a formidable writer. Above all, though, it seems to be about the battle between fear and hope when we are faced with change – a battle which, in Scotland at least, fear won.

The Beautiful Indifference

February 5, 2015

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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.