Sarah Hall's four novels have won a wealth of prizes.
This is her first short story collection, and shows her characteristic ability to cause disquiet. She explores the moments that most keep private – if they admit to having them at all. The sense of unease simmering under their surface, ready to boil over into catastrophe, seems voyeuristic; we're spying on the intimate moments of characters' lives, witnessing their self-doubt, their secrets, and them falling apart.
As in her novel How to Paint a Dead Man, the narration varies from first person and the unusual second person singular to the third person. "Butcher's Perfume" shows the Hall of The Electric Michelangelo, familiar with seedy lifestyles. The Slessors are the toughest criminal family in town, with new money and old traveller blood. The story is about superstition, horse whispering, casual reproduction and prison. The family is simultaneously menacing ("Manda was holding her by the throat and Donna drooped like a rabbit skin") and compassionate towards those in their circle, man or beast. Especially beast.
Caring for animals more than humans is also a minor theme in "The Beautiful Indifference". This bittersweet story is astute on relationships ("the anticipation [of sex] had led to problems; awkward exchanges, inappropriate behaviour") and on the desperate maternal yearning for which fun can't compensate.
Hall's sharply perceptive observations strike like slaps. In "She Murdered Mortal He", a spurned lover thinks "maybe he was asleep; oblivious to everything, making use of that shut-off mechanism men could rely upon". Occasionally, characters seem aloof, distant, unreachable.The protagonist in "Bees" remains curiously flat, and the one in "The Nightlong River" is inscrutable.
Hall's northern roots shine through in her language ("mardy", "ritted", "gannan") but despite some hardy northern protagonists, there is a deeply sensual element to her writing: it is visceral and instinctive; she wears her characters' sensations like cashmere. People feel "soft at the edges"; "loose"; "absent"; they "come apart". It's like sinking into a Rothko painting. Language is used inventively: eyes "curtsied ... up and down"; an animal "blurted" from its hole; avian calls are "greasy".
These are stimulating, unsettling stories. I prefer Hall's novels, in which fragile characters can develop and moods build up to breaking point, but these tales still intrigue and mesmerise.