Wednesday 12 August 2020

Sudden Traveller, Sarah Hall

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Hall’s latest short story collection is a searing look at humanity and the inevitable trauma and grief that comes with being alive. The book opens with a surreal tale of a woman transforming into something new and living with an excruciating, mystery pain. It ends with a mother comforting her child at night. The prose is beautiful and evocative throughout and you’ll find yourself wanting to just sit and let what you’ve read sink in.

Relationships, especially within families, are a recurring theme. In The Grotesque we follow Dilly as she runs some errands around Cambridge before her birthday party. She initially seems childlike but we soon discover she is much older than originally imagined. With an over-bearing mother and a family she feels outside of, she lives in fear and subservience of her more self-assured relatives. You get the sense that outward appearance is more important to them than genuine affection. Dilly’s party is full of her mother’s friends, and she is too afraid to eat a scone in case she is seen to be breaking the diet her mother enforces. Her reaction to seeing Charlie-bo, a local homeless man, at the brunt of a prank is to feel pity while commenting that others would have found it funny. Her mother would be dismissive of him. From this opening we understand that her family is not like her. Hall expertly builds character without resorting to explicit description, and allows us to feel we know far more about the characters than you’d expect in short form.

We also see death discussed in several of the stories. In Orton a woman has decided to have her pacemaker turned off, choosing death. The story has a sense of calm and control to it as she reminisces about an early sexual encounter that had happened near where she has decided to breathe her last. In Sudden Traveller we experience the heartbreak that follows death as a new mother sits in a car breastfeeding her baby as her brother and father prepare a grave for her own mother. It is a devastating read as the young woman tries to come to terms with what has happened, thinks about having to carry the coffin, and describes how they’ve each dealt with their grief uniquely. For me this was the standout story of the collection, it packed a real emotional punch.

The book is a treasure trove of intensely felt stories of ordinary people. A triumphant reminder that short stories can be every bit as compelling and affecting as a novel, the characters and events condensed into a concentrated bullet that goes straight to the heart. 

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