When I read a collection of short stories, particularly a collection by the same author, I like to consider threads that hold all the stories together. Are there commonalities in mood or theme or style that make them work as a collection, even if each one could exist on its own? And do those commonalities make the stories feel unified–or do they create a tedious sameness?
In the case of this collection by Sarah Hall, the commonality seems to be that most of the characters in the stories are in the process of letting go of something, usually a relationship, but sometimes also of ideas they have about themselves or about others. In some cases, the letting go comes suddenly, before they’ve had time to prepare, but in others, the parting takes its time. Sometimes the ending is by choice, and at other times it’s not. Death and dissolution both have their say, but so too does the choice to try something daring and different. Thus, within the unity, there is variety, making this collection work as a collection and letting each story carry its own particular weight.
In each story, Hall gets inside the head of a woman who is starting—or who is on the verge of starting—a new life. In “Bees,” Hall describes this feeling of transition, as experienced by a woman who has moved to London from her rural home in the North:
It’s not work-related, this move; not a new job, that which beckons most rural emigrants. You’ve come away from your old home for another reason, a reason you imagine to be prosaic, here in this cauldron of life. You’ve come to forget, to move on. And with this move, some lurid internal part of you has unzipped your flesh and stepped outside. A red, essential thing. You felt it go. It happened as you were getting off the train in Euston station, standing on the platform and reaching back into the carriage to collect your suitcase. There was a sudden internal event, like a cramp or a stroke, like waters breaking. Something rose up inside your chest. It split you open. It tugged itself through the walls of muscle, slid to the floor and moved off into the crowd. What’s left now is a loose pink sack of human being, bearing your name and your forgettable history. A skin bag with a few organs and some blood slung in; viscera, which cooperate only to the extent they must, in order to keep you alive. In truth, it’s a relief. This downgrading of self. This degeneration. You don’t ache or feel hunger or long for anything. You don’t mind going without that prime red aspect. You have been granted mercy.
Change is rarely wholly good or bad; it’s indifferent. The change described here, in terms that suggest birth, but a violent one, something akin to what you might see in the Alien films. It brings freedom from an invasive force, that steals away your life. But it leaves you somehow less than you were. With each story in this collection, change is a blessing and a curse.
In, for example, “She Murdered Mortal He,” the change that comes prevents the protagonist from having to cope with another change that is perhaps inevitable but that she will have to choose. The choice is taken from her, which is a relief–and events in the story left me with a feeling that perhaps she willed the ending into being without knowing what she was doing. On the other hand, in “The Nightlong River,” the protagonist has time to prepare for the tragic party that is to come, and she turns that time of preparation into an opportunity for showing her love.
These are gorgeous, mournful stories, each one a delicate portrait of emotion stretched almost to the point of breaking. The collection has been available in the UK for more than a year, but this week marks its US release. It’s worth looking for–I’ll certainly be seeking out more of Hall’s work.