Books | The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall

John Lavin delves into the multifaceted The Beautiful Indifference, a collection of short stories from novelist Sarah Hall.

Ever since her debut novel, the Cumbrian-set Haweswater, it has been clear that Sarah Hall is a writer to a watch. However despite the unquestionably brilliant writing that characterised 2009’s How to Paint a Dead Man it is perhaps only now, with this, her first collection of short stories, that she has truly come into her own.

Sarah Hall has always had a poet’s eye for detail and description – indeed she had first wanted to be a poet before she found success as a novelist – and maybe it is for this reason that her gifts seem particularly suited to the form of the short story. In The Beautiful Indifference Hall introduces us to a world of vividly evoked landscapes – of Finland, Africa, and her native Cumbria – but also to the landscapes of her characters’ bodies. She seeks to draw parallels, not only between ourselves and the landscapes we inhabit, but between human and animal nature also. This is especially true of her descriptions of sex. In this, and in her use of local dialect, she calls to mind the poetry of Ted Hughes, as the following description of Cumbria suggests:

A landscape of torn skirts and hacked throats, where roofs were oiled and fired, and haylofts were used to kipper children.

This is not, then, the Cumbria of the Lake District National Park Tourist Board, of ‘The Daffodils’ and Swallows and Amazons. No, we are in a ‘burnt-farm, red-river, raping territory’, which recalls the days of the Romantics, when gangs of robbers and murderers terrorised the mountainsides. Hall, in other words, has invented a sort of Cumbrian Gothic.

The opening ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ is the story which most embodies this aesthetic. A school girl’s recounting of her friendship with the daughter of a notorious local family, the Slessors, who are:

known for prison sentences… [and] fertility at every age, for a seed that always took, and a womb that always produced – thirteen and virgin to those traveler grandmothers suckling at fifty.

The story’s denouement comes when the girl chances upon a tied-up horse that appears to be being slowly tortured to death. Not knowing what to do, she tells her friend’s brother and unwittingly unleashes the fierce retribution of the Slessor family. It is an old, primal world that Hall wants us to believe in, with the Slessors at its centre: as cold and indifferent as the title of the collection would indicate.

The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah HallThe title story itself is also set in the Lake District but is an altogether more sombre and sophisticated piece, which ostensibly sets out to describe the relationship between a young man and an older woman. Told from the female point of view Hall begins by detailing both the woman’s delight and concern regarding the relationship; how her female friends seem alarmed by its frivolity and lack of purpose i.e. its lack of an end goal of a husband and children. ‘Perhaps she was not allowed the sex after all,’ she concludes. In these passages Sarah Hall calls to mind the short stories of Hanif Kureishi; only with his disillusioned, unfaithful fortysomething men being replaced by their female counterparts. This, in itself would be a bold and interesting move on Hall’s part, if only as a rebuke to Kureishi’s portrayal of women, which can often suggest a similar degree of incomprehension on the author’s part to that which is exhibited by his male characters. However Hall does not stop there and the masterly twist at the end of the piece changes the entire complexion of the story.

‘The Agency’ stays in inverse-Kureishi territory and is somewhat like a contemporary take on Bunuel’s Belle du Jour: its bored housewife central character not having to become a prostitute in order to fulfill her unconsummated desires but much more sensibly deciding to visit one instead. Like the central character of Jay in Kureishi’s Intimacy, there is something both shocking and at the same time oddly cathartic about how the narrator can cast aside her partner and children – who it is made clear she loves – purely for pleasure:

But in the end, thinking of our life together made no difference. It was as if love had become scentless, bloodless, it had somehow lost its vitality. I put the car in gear, waiting for a gap in the traffic and pulled away.

But unlike Kureishi – whose entire oeuvre may be seen as a political manifesto on behalf of pleasure – Sarah Hall couches the story in much more ambiguous tones, leaving the reader feeling disturbed by a world of complicated desires and uneasy questions.

The final piece, the mesmeric ‘Vuotjarvi’, takes place on the Finnish lake of its title and is written from the point of view of a woman whose partner has swum out to one of its islands. Unlike the majority of the stories here the relationship is a purely happy one marked by, ‘That feeling of rapture, of flood, like being suspended.’ Hall expertly charts the narrator’s thought processes as she moves from erotic recollections of the past week – the couple are on holiday – to her sudden, panic stricken realisation that her lover is taking far longer to reappear in her line of vision than he should. She rows out to try and find him, further and further, until there is a leak in the boat that causes her own life to come into jeopardy:

Her fear was bifurcating; she could feel the fibrous separation in her chest, the intimate tearing, so uncomfortable she could hardly bear it. Then, without any pain, she sealed, and the fear was singular again, for herself only.

Sarah Hall leaves her, and us, there like that: fighting for survival against the waters of the empty, indifferent lake. A fitting metaphor with which to end this disturbing and impressive collection.