February 2013

Rebecca Silber

fiction

The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall

I enjoy entering a world, for a short time, so different from my normal habitat -- stark, dark, unexpected, and raw. British author Sarah Hall's debut short story collection, The Beautiful Indifference, is all of these things; her writing so honest, I found myself staring at the words, looking for lies that weren't there. The Beautiful Indifference was first published in the United Kingdom in 2011 and has now been released in the United States. Hall is a young novelist, but has already won the Portico Prize for Fiction, in 2012, for this collection.

The Beautiful Indifference is a relatively skinny book, which I view as one of its strengths. When I read short stories, I prefer to read all of them over the course of a short period of time because it is easier to keep them together in my mind this way; I feel that a compilation of stories should be somewhat cohesive. The length of this book makes it a fairly quick read. It is difficult to write a compelling story that is also short, but Hall has succeeded seven times over. The protagonists in this collection are all young women in different stages of life, in different frames of mind. The characters are ordinary people, a fragment of their lives written by Hall.

Most of the stories in The Beautiful Indifference take place in Great Britain, but a couple of them take place while the characters are traveling. My favorite story in this collection, "She Murdered Mortal He," takes place while a young couple is vacationing in Africa. They had been dating for about a year when one morning, at the beginning of their holiday, after an argument, the boyfriend declares, "I used to think you were strange and amazing... But I wonder how much we have in common. We seem to want different things. Why are we here?" After coming across this statement, I paused my reading to mourn the end of the relationship. Even just a few pages in, I could feel the couple's pain, what the girlfriend must be feeling, far from home, so suddenly alone with no one loving her -- her lonely panic. A vacation gone the wrong way. Following the fight, she (the characters in this story are nameless) goes off on a night walk along the beach and returns to her boyfriend; there, she's met with a troubling, terrifying ending.

Hall's writing style is flowing and intelligent, and her descriptions are eloquent, yet jarring. Take for example, this line in the first story in the collection, "Butcher's Perfume," describing a classroom bully, Manda, "I saw she had a little heart carved into her wrist from a compass point, a thing which only the halest girls did. The scratch bloomed yellow-red, like a septic rose against her skin." Hall's writing is unpredictably jolting throughout this collection. In the same story she casually transitions to a rape and later to Manda's mother's actions when the narrator "saw her take out her husband's cock and hold it when he came home so drunk from the rugby club that he started to piss himself in the porch of High Setterah." There are lots of sexual undertones in these stories, some more overt than others, but none shy -- all contributing to the rawness of the collection.

Hall also experiments in her writing, for example, by not giving characters names, as she does in "She Murdered Mortal He." Hall, in her writing experimentation, also creates some untraditional visuals. Again, in "She Murdered Mortal He," Hall writes, "The air was heavy, greenly perfumed, and the avian calls were loud and greasy." Frankly, I don't completely understand this comparison, birdcalls being greasy, but I found it difficult to forget, which has to count for something. In another story, "Bees," Hall writes the entire piece in second-person: "One morning, not long after you've moved into the new house, you're out in the garden and you notice that the ground is littered with insects." That is the first line of the story, and it continues in this manner, using "you" throughout. Writing in second person is rare -- a unique, perhaps gimmicky, way to bring the reader into the piece.

Overall, I enjoyed this collection, but there were a couple of things that bothered me. Six of these stories take place in current times -- there are mentions of texting and GPS systems, giving them a place in modernity. But, one of the stories, "The Nightlong River," is set in another era. While a good story, I didn't feel that it fit in with the rest of the collection; it is a misfit in time among the other six stories. Additionally, I was bothered by the manner in which Hall adds suspense to several of the stories when it doesn't need to be there. In doing so, she creates anticipation by withholding information, and, in turn, distracts from the plot. For example, in "The Agency," the main character, a young married mother, is taking a day trip into the city, fittingly to an agency of some sort. Hall builds up an air of mystery by not explicitly saying from the beginning what sort of agency it is, even though it is fairly obvious. I didn't understand why she did this -- it wasn't necessary to the storyline -- and I found myself racing through Hall's exquisite words to figure out if my theory as to where the character was going was correct. I should point out that there are several instances in the book where Hall adds suspense that is completely necessary to her stories. It is the peripheral suspense that was annoying.

Aside from these two minor complaints, I enjoyed The Beautiful Indifference. Hall's writing is unprocessed, her stories captivating. As soon as I finished one story, I anxiously moved on to the next; I consistently found the next one equally as staggering as the preceding story. I hope Americans will welcome Hall's collection of eloquently written, at times bleak, short stories with justified zeal.

The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall
Harper Perennial
ISBN: 978-0062208453
208 pages