REVIEW by Laura Stowe

28/03/2012

The Beautiful Indifference

by Sarah Hall

The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall’s wonderful new collection of short stories, The Beautiful Indifference, takes the reader through a series of dark, atmospheric and moving tales. Each story is set against its own vivid backdrop – from gypsy communities near Manchester to a back garden in London – and each of these landscapes is inhabited by a range of intriguing and complex characters. Although the stories are self-contained, there is a distinct melancholic undertone present throughout.

I almost felt I knew some of the characters in this book, but others were more exotic and alien. In either case I could not help but feel empathy for even the most selfish of individuals. In ‘The Agency’ we hear the story of a woman who is seemingly dissatisfied with her home life, despite not really having any problems that she can actually lay a finger on. But because of how Hall cleverly reveals the character’s feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, we ultimately feel a bit sorry for her.

Hall also applies language beautifully and you get a real sense of an artist at work throughout each story. Take, for instance, the closing lines of ‘The Nightlong River’ (shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Prize, 2010): ‘What remains are moors and mountains, the solid world upon which we find ourselves, and in which we reign. We are the wolves. We are the lions. After so many nights treading the banks with dogs and my brothers, intent on some mettlesome purpose I did not truly understand, night after night I dreamed of the river. I dream of it now: a river of stolen perfumes, winding its way through our inverse Eden.’ Incredibly powerful imagery that ties up one of the most moving stories in the book.

The perspective is varied too; sometimes the drama unfolds through the eyes of a child, and at other times Hall skillfully places the reader at the heart of the action. In ‘Bees’, this use of second person narrative gives an additional sense of investment in the story; it also contains elements which many readers will be able to directly relate to.

‘She Murdered Mortal He’ and ‘Vuotjärvi’ deal with similar subject matter – a couple in a foreign place, both separated, but for different reasons. They are written from the viewpoint of the women but the difference lies in how they both feel about the separation. The former comes to a toe-curling climax whereas the latter builds mystery and a panic that is never really resolved. And that would be my only criticism of this book; ‘Vuotjärvi’ is the final story in the collection and its ending is so abrupt, and leaves so many unanswered questions, that I can’t help but feel a little frustrated – I want more! But perhaps that was the author’s intention all along.

This is Hall’s fifth book but her first collection of short stories. Her previous long fiction work has been extremely well received, winning awards and places on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize and the longlist for the Orange Prize for Fiction. The Beautiful Indifference is a fantastic starting place for anyone looking to expand their short story reading and I will certainly be keeping an eye out for further collections from Hall in the future. Furthermore, Bloomsbury recently dubbed 2012 as the year of the short story and will be publishing new collections every month in the first half of this year.


       


previous review: The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge
next review: The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen



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