Sarah Hall, photo credit: Richard Thwaites  

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Synopsis

From the heathered fells and lowlands of Cumbria with their history of smouldering violence, to the speed and heat of summer London, to an eerily still lake in the Finnish wilderness, Sarah Hall evokes landscapes with extraordinary precision and grace. The characters within these territories are real-life survivors, but whether it’s a frustrated housewife seeking extreme experience or a young woman contemplating the death of her lover, dark devices and desires rise to the surface. And the human body, too – flawed, visceral, and full of emotional conflict – provides a sensuous frame for each unfolding drama.

Uniquely disturbing and deeply erotic, this collection confirms Sarah Hall as one of the greatest writers of her generation. The Beautiful Indifference includes ‘Butcher’s Perfume’, which was short-listed for the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2010.

The Beautiful Indifference at:
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BBC Podcast November 2011
link www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts


The Beautiful Indifference
Sarah Hall

'Monstrous events happen offstage over the course of these seven stories: beatings, maulings, suicide and abandonment. But their force is felt all the more powerfully through the precision of Hall's prose, which is always grounded in the immediacy of everyday detail. In one of the stand-out pieces, the almost unbearably tense "She Murdered Mortal He", the unnamed narrator and her boyfriend have taken a daring holiday in a war-scarred African country as yet unspoiled by tourism, which turns out to be an exotic location for a very mundane break-up. Hoping both to escape the boyfriend and to prompt him to follow, she strikes out from their jungle settlement of boutique tents and down to the sea. The tale that unfolds has something of the atmosphere of an MR James ghost story, and the erotic charge of Hall's writing coexists with her characters' sense of separation: each is a world entire, and they retain their depth, their mystery. As the narrator of "The Beautiful Indifference" muses of her lover: She had brought him so close. And yet so much was unspeakable."' Justine Jordan, Saturday Guardian

'A writer of sensual and striking prose, Hall is at her best capturing wild landscapes.' Independent

'Seven luscious, sensuous stories from one of our most talented writers, exploring the erotic, violent relationship between men and women in exquisite, painterly prose.' Claire Allfree, Metro

'The short form is hard. You need to have the scope of a novel on a canvas a fraction of the size. Your story should be something a reader will turn to from time to time in the same way that people listen to certain songs before they get ready to go out or fall asleep. You’ll need to be economical, and resist the urge of parable or one-act morality play. You need a beginning, middle and end, and a last line that resonates long after the story is over. Sarah Hall can do the short form. Reading The Beautiful Indifference gives you that cold, solid, rare feeling — that this is something special.' Max Dunbar, 3:AM Magazine

'Sarah Hall should be on everyone's reading list: I think she's the best British writer around right now. These short stories encapsulate the motifs that have prevailed in her novels: women defined on their own terms and the wild territory where humanity and nature jockey for control. Her deftly exquisite marshalling of language - rendering it fierce and brutal, poetically stark, liltingly sensuous, even unabashedly sexual - matches the sinuous moods of these seven distinctive and accomplished stories.' Jonathan Ruppin, Foyles

'This first collection of short stories by the Man Booker-shortlisted novelist is full of sensuous power.' Must Reads, The Sunday Times

'Young Cumbrian writer Sarah Hall has established herself as a fiction writer of note, her four novels winning awards and acclaim in equal measure for their conmmand of language and originality. Both qualities are in evidence in The Beautiful Indifference, her first collection of short stories. There is an air of quiet desolation about the stories here, and an understated storytelling nous, like Alice Munro or Raymond Carver, yet with a distinct personality all her own. Measured, discomforting and occasionally sublime, it's a fine addition to her body of work.' Doug Johnstone, The Big Issue

'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 "Voutjarvi" quickly becomes claustrophobic, despite the almost endless open water on which it's set. Without judgement, 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.' Jodie Mullish, Telegraph

'The remarkable thing about Hall's writing, and most good writing, especially in the short form, is that the most important stuff is not what's on the page, but what's not. The stuff left out.' Nicholas Royle, Independent

'Seven skilfully adrenalised stories, precise and sensual, in which the scent of violence is a constant.' Helen Simpson, Guardian

'I expect [The Beautiful Indifference] to be as gripping and cerebral as previous novels of hers – and one of my favourites, The Carhullan Army.' Bidisha, Observer

'Hall's deft marshalling of language - rendering it fierce and brutal, poetically stark, liltingly sensuous, even unabashedly sexual - matches the sinuous moods of these seven distinctive, accomplished stories.' We Love This Book

'Reaches a standard that makes award juries sit up and take note ... Hall's voice is strong and distinctive - even, in single, elevated passages, exquisite.' Lionel Shriver, Financial Times

'Shows her characteristic ability to cause disquiet ... Hall's sharply perceptive observations strike like slaps ... There is a deeply sensual element to her writing: it is visceral and instinctive ... It's like sinking into a Rothko painting. Language is used inventively. These are stimulating, unsettling stories that... intrigue and mesmerise.' Independent on Sunday

'This varied and engrossing selection ... shows Hall's brilliant gift for character and the sensuous drama of her writing.' Psychologies

'[Hall] creates some glorious imagery ... the reader's memory still lingers on a beautifully realised moment or skillfully-drawn character.' **** The List

'Luscious short stories from uber-talented Cumbrian writer Sarah Hall, all told in ravishing prose.' Metro

'Hall evokes her landscapes with bewitchingly vivid prose. Her writing is gutteral and visceral, and her characters are raw and sinewy ... Every one of the seven tales here delights and disturbs in equal measure. The Beautiful Indifference illustrates that short fiction is indeed a finely wrought art form, and Hall is an artist of considerable and concise skill. Each story is a gem, but together they from a collection of astonishingly sensuous power ... Hall is a writer of both rare vision and talent.' The Sunday Times

'These stories constantly thwart one's dramatic expectations - and are all the more dramatic for it ... This prose, particularly when used to convey the bleakness of the Cumbrian landscape, is wonderful ... She does darkness so very well.' The Times

'Powerful ... Any Cop?: Yes, without a doubt. Go and buy it. All of you.' bookmunch.co.uk

'Hall masters landscape and brevity both, sending you places mentally as well as emotionally then hauling you elsewhere ... Hall's stories are distubring and delicate, surprising and sad, assured and sensual, with a deliciously dark tint to their edges. What better recommendation for a book of short stories than to be so enchanted that you want to flip them over and start all over again.' Scotland on Sunday

'Seductively oblique, beautifully poetic, wholly absorbing ... Mixing fragility and strength, they are vivid and moving.' Easy Living

'Sarah Hall's four novels have already shown her to be a writer of extraordinary talents, whether in the rough magic of The Carhullan Army, about female resistance in a near-future police state, or the passionate intertwined narratives of art and identity that make up the Booker-longlisted How To Paint A Dead Man. With her first short-story collection, her writing takes another leap forward, into a landscape entirely her own.

Monstrous events happen offstage over the course of these seven stories: beatings, maulings, suicide and abandonment. But their force is felt all the more powerfully through the measured precision of Hall's prose, which is always grounded in the exact immediacy of everyday detail. It's an expertly "managed tension", as the narrator, Kathleen, writes admiringly of the charismatic, dangerous family at the heart of "Butcher's Perfume". The Slessor clan are "forged from the old rage of the north … gipsy stock, scrappies, dog-and-horse breeders, fire-mongers". Kathleen is indeed playing with fire when she unleashes their fury on a local farmer who mistreats his animals. The story is speckled with ancient dialect and modern slang, haunted by the violent history of the contested northern border lands, yet bang up-to-date as speeding drivers get spooked on the M6: "This was where the raiders met, coming south or north. This was burnt-farm, red-river, raping territory."

Dangerous ground is again trodden in the collection's other stand-out piece, the almost unbearably tense "She Murdered Mortal He". The unnamed narrator and her boyfriend have taken a daring holiday in a war-scarred African country as yet unspoiled by tourism, which turns out to be an exotic location for a very mundane break-up conversation. ("What's wrong, she had asked him … Nothing, he had said a few times. But she had persisted.") With those few fatal words the lover becomes a stranger and intimacy is torture: hoping both to escape him and to prompt him to follow, she strikes out from their jungle settlement of boutique tents and down to the sea, walking the "corridor of sand" alone as night falls. Each step seems to take her deeper into danger, despite her feeling of giddy immunity to harm ("the worst had already happened tonight"). The tale that unfolds has something of the atmosphere of an MR James ghost story, as the perils of her situation press in against her – she is "all meat, all scent" – while her emotional turmoil radiates out. She identifies a self-sabotaging agency in the way she nudged her lover to end the relationship – "as if with her arch invitation to speak his mind, she had conjured from a void the means to destroy everything" – but she also has a ghastly, otherworldly agency in the indeterminate event that happens next.

Holidays are the pilgrimages of modern lovers. Another vacation story, "Vuotjarvi", beautifully evokes the Scandinavian landscape, and again hinges on the moment the world tips into disaster. Closer to home, the title story takes a well-worn subject – a woman awaiting her lover – and makes it new and strange. From the narrator's illness to the "dense tissue" of venison her lover consumes in a restaurant, this is a study of bodies: their damage, their desires, the elusive spark that makes meat into flesh. "The Beautiful Indifference" of the title could refer to the lovers' disdain for the age gap that troubles their friends, to the gorgeously dispassionate prose, or to the enduring natural world, untroubled by the human theatre enacted in it.

Nature is the overwhelming force in the fairytale-like "The Nightlong River", which contrasts snow and blood, mink and red berries, for the story of a girl who in deepest winter joins the mink hunt so as to stitch a fur cape for her fragile friend."What remains are moors and mountains, the solid world upon which we find ourselves, and in which we reign. We are the wolves. We are the lions."

Humans are repeatedly cast as wild animals throughout these stories. (In a very superior piece of light relief, Hall wryly ushers wildness back into the domestic arena, as a wife who finds that love has become "scentless, bloodless" turns to the discreet services provided by "The Agency".) The erotic charge of Hall's writing, its fierce physical power, coexists with her characters' sense of separation: each is a world entire, and they retain their depth, their mystery. As the narrator of "The Beautiful Indifference" muses of her lover: "She had brought him so close. And yet so much was unspeakable."' Justine Jordan, Guardian

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