Book review: The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall

Seven stories, seven linked themes, each wrapped in earthy and yet ethereal layers of disturbing and dazzling sensuality.

By Pam Norfolk
Wednesday, 4th January 2012, 6:00 am

Prose that delights with its rare beauty and shocks with its raw, visceral power – death, desire, darkness and despair united with a bewitching delicacy and skill.

Cumbrian-born Sarah Hall is fast becoming one of the best writers of her generation. Her four novels, including The Electric Michelangelo and How to Paint a Dead Man, have already won fiction awards and been short and longlisted for the Man Booker and Orange Prizes.

And now her latest work, a mesmeric and stimulating collection of high adrenalin short stories, is garnering a fresh wave of critical praise and a raft of new fans.

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Always at home in the bleak Cumbrian landscape, Hall’s tales of the unexpected take us from the heather-clad fells of the countryside around Carlisle to the claustrophobic heat of a London summer, the wilds of a remote African country and an eerily still lake in the Finnish wilderness.

And within them all simmers sexual passion, the scent of death and a startling sense of physicality which drive the narrative and form an extraordinarily dense and erotic backdrop to each unfolding drama.

Hall revives the fine art of short story writing, placing on full public display the unique gift of combining mystery, tension, character creation and a sense of time and place within the confines of precise boundaries.

The people who inhabit these unsettling territories are bound together by the survival instinct, whether it’s a frustrated housewife seeking an extreme experience or a young woman fleeing an argument with her lover.

Dark desires bubble to the surface of Hall’s haunting storylines and the human body, with all its frailties, flaws, fears and conflicts, provides a sensuous frame for both the action and the deeper psychology.

Violence and the threat of violence – a ruthless beating, a suicide and a vicious attack – take place off the page but the legacy is a powerful sense of impending danger and nail-biting suspense.

In ‘She Murdered Mortal He’, a woman holidaymaker walking alone at evening time in an African country only barely on the tourist trail becomes painfully aware that she is dangerously exposed, ‘all meat, all scent’ to any ‘glistening-jawed’ predator.

Nature – whether in a hot and humid ‘condensed’ garden at the back of a Hackney bedsit or amidst a harsh rural winter with hoar frosts ‘that would stop the hearts of mice in their burrows’ – powerfully underpins the descriptive, desultory and evocative ‘Bees’ and ‘The Nightlong River.’

Stand-out story is ’Butcher’s Perfume’ featuring the Slessors, a tough but charismatic Cumbrian gypsy family ‘forged from the old rage of the north’ which has spawned Manda, a menacing teenager who knows her way round language ‘only heard outside the bookies or on building sites.’

Gracefully literary and yet intensely literal, The Beautiful Indifference is full of sharp observation, northern grit and keenly-felt human emotion.

A first-class reading experience...

(Faber, paperback, £12.99)