It’s hard to believe that Sudden Traveller is only Sarah Hall’s third short fiction collection. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize as a novelist, Hall seems to have made the short story genre explicitly her own since The Beautiful Indifference was published in 2011, followed by Madame Zero in 2017. In between, she won the 2013 BBC National Short Story award for “Mrs Fox”, a disconcerting tale of anthropomorphosis that managed to be both radical and tender in its delivery.
Altered states very much continue to be Hall’s theme in this new book. Her characters are not simply changed – through trauma, experience, or memory – they are turned inside out, physically and psychologically. A baby nestles against his newly bereaved mother, his very existence keeping her alive in turn: “a small machine, an extra organ worn outside the body”. Rarely, too, does an author write words the reader can consistently smell and taste. A description of autumn in the opening story “M” is entirely, uncomfortably sensual. A middle-aged lawyer haunted by the abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her stepfather, walks to work anxious after a night of mysterious, excruciating pain – what she observes en route is through pure animal instinct, hinting at the transformation she will undergo. “There’s a cider aroma, and the smell of latrines, flushed gutters, sodden fur.”
In “Orton”, an elderly woman at the end of her life returns to the northern moorland landscape in which she grew up, recalling a one-off sexual encounter from half a century earlier: “Both of them unable to stop, as if dragged into a beautiful slaughtering machine” after which, as if as part of a ritual, “Another life started, which was the proper one, the one that comes after a sacrifice.”
The fells of Cumbria and the Lake District have long been an intrinsic part of Hall’s writing and while they continue to feature prominently, she travels to Turkey and the Near East with two very different stories in the collection. In the aching “The Woman the Book Read” a man drinking coffee by a harbour at sunset realises that the attractive young female tourist he has been idly observing might have a greater connection to him than the poignant reminiscences she excites. And in the sinister, multilayered “Who Pays?”, legend and bloody history merge around a sacred well in the middle of a forest, a scene of joyful partying for the young men and (occasionally) women from the local village. The power of supernatural force and collective will to prevent one of the men from enacting out a terrible future he cannot see but others can predict is told without whimsy, mercy or, thankfully, any hint of magical realism.
Every collection has its show stoppers. “The Grotesques” is one. Set in Cambridge on an idyllic summer afternoon that quickly turns to drenching rain, a young woman, Dilly, who is at first presented as a child, makes her nervous way around the city, running errands for a birthday party that she has little interest in (her own). The baiting of a local homeless man by students unsettles her, and she witnesses anguish and misfortune at every turn, particularly in the icy, unresisting heart of her manipulative mother, for whom “the greatest betrayal of all was to disaffiliate”.
A mother of a different kind is at the centre of the book’s title story. A woman gives birth to a son, and almost simultaneously receives the diagnosis of her beloved mother’s terminal illness. The ricocheting prospect of death to those who await it allows Hall to consider the deepest questions. Returning home to the north to keep vigil, the woman sees “empty roads shine like dark wounds through the mountains”. Grief seeps into every crevice of this terrain, which is paralysed by heavy flooding. What do we fleetingly remember of those who have gone? What remains? As she mourns, the woman recalls the grandfather she barely knew and looks forward to a future of hitherto unanticipated love. “We are all of us sudden travellers in the world, blind, passing each other, reaching out, missing, sometimes taking hold”, writes Hall, in this, her most personal and beautiful work yet.
Faber & Faber, 144pp, £12.99
This article appears in the 20 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over