The “burnt-farm, red-river, raping territory” setting of opening story “The Butcher’s Perfume” sets the tone for Sarah Hall’s latest disturbing, exquisitely crafted collection. All six stories have darkness at their centre, each capturing a sense of wildness pulsing beneath a skin-thin layer of respectability.
In “The Agency”, a bored wife’s longings are assuaged in the politest possible way – an elegant office, a multiple-choice form and a discreet hotel meeting. Still, violence seeps through as, afterwards, she fingers the bruise spreading on her hip and considers how to mask the marks on her wrists. “Bees” tells of a woman who believes she has lost some vital, visceral part of herself, only to be shocked back into the savage, physical world when she discovers what is killing the insects that carpet her small garden each morning.
Hall’s vaunted writing prowess is apparent throughout. She evokes location skilfully and sensuously, whether an eerie Finnish lake without apparent bottom, a moneyed, conservative city coming apart at the seams on a drunken Saturday night, or desolate Cumbrian fells where the stench of the local abattoir drifts across valleys steeped in centuries of warfare.
Changes in voice between stories are expert and stark: the measured, sophisticated prose of eponymous “The Beautiful Indifference” is a particularly delicious jolt after the raw, Anglo-Saxon harshness of “The Butcher’s Perfume”. “She Murdered Mortal He”, in which a tourist wanders alone on a darkening African beach, is a masterclass in building tension; the panic conveyed in “Voutjärvi” quickly becomes claustrophobic, despite the almost endless open water on which it’s set.
Without judgment, Hall seems to set her characters, and by extension all of us, on a scale with animals, rutting by instinct, violent at heart, governed by the same needs for warmth, sex, shelter and food. This is clearest in “The Nightlong River”, where a rural community must slaughter the mink that decimate their flocks. The only overtly historical tale in the collection, it is the standout story, with its off-kilter rhythm and powerful account of hunting in the hinterlands.
Hall’s stories are at once satisfying and intriguingly open-ended, haunting the imagination long after the last page is turned.