In the Critics this week

John Gray on Brian Leiter, Leo Robson on Julian Barnes and Kate Mossman on Kylie Minogue.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, our lead book reviewer John Gray reviews Why Tolerate Religion? by the American political philosopher Brian Leiter. “Why treat religiously based claims of conscience as morally privileged, while denying similar exemption to others?” Gray asks. “How such conflicts can be settled is far from clear but Leiter believes there is no reason for giving religions any special standing.” There is nothing special about religion, Gray goes on: “Clinging to beliefs against evidence is a universal human tendency … Toleration means accepting that most of our beliefs are always going to be unwarranted.”

Also in Books: Leo Robson reviews Julian Barnes’s essay collection Through the Window, and is put off by Barnes’s “rivalrous, gossip-minded and passive-aggressive” writerly persona – “Even the most enthusiastic essays here are full of rib-nudges and eye pokes”; Antonia Quirke reviews Richard Burton’s diaries, the “most captivating book of the year”; Vernon Bogdanor reviews Making Thatcher’s Britain, a collection of essays on the legacy of Thatcherism, and The Conservatives Since 1945 by Tim Bale; and David Shariatmadari reviews Sara Maitland’s exploration of the fairy tale, Gossip From the Forest.

This week’s Critic at large is writer and psychotherapist Talitha Stevenson, who asks why so many of the pathologies of modern life are assuming a form previously thought to be peculiar to creative writers. “As a psychotherapist I see people with solicitor’s block and banker’s block and designer’s block and surgeon’s block – and the pain is the same pain in each case.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: NS pop critic Kate Mossman reviews Kylie Minogue’s The Abbey Road Sessions (“Minogue has become a mannequin upon which her fans project grand abstracts like joy, strength, liberation and love”); Matt Trueman reviews Trojan Women at the Gate Theatre and Arab Nights at the Soho Theatre; Antonia Quirke enjoys an episode of Radio 3’s The Essay; Rachel Cooke defends the BBC’s arts presenter Waldemar Januszczak; and Ryan Gilbey welcomes Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt as “a Midwich Cuckoos for the Savile era”.

Kylie Minogue performing in Sydney, 2011 (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder