Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends
Madame Zero by Sarah Hall. Faber. £12.99
Sarah Hall is a psychological explorer. In these disturbing, illuminating short stories she pursues parts of the self to the utmost extreme.
The first story, Mrs Fox, won the BBC National Short Story Award for 2013. The story turns on the human and the wild, the beautiful and the tainted, the known and the disturbingly unknown. When the husband watches his wife back from work, in the kitchen, "unfastening her shoes", he has a determining sense of: "Her form, her essence, a scent of corrupted rose." The scent is the woman as he desires her. The rose is the idealisation, the beauty, even the feeling that she is intensely, exclusively his, and the "corrupted" is the darkness, the sexuality, but also the threat, the decay, the canker which will destroy the bloom.
The scent is also feral. It is the wild animal itself, the unsettling, unknowable other.
The story moves from a domestic suburban world sharply observed through changes which would be fantastical did they not seem so true, so vivid. The husband is drawn into a place where the instinctual life of the animal leaves him at a loss, as though he is peripheral to the life of his wife.
He stands and watches. The fox cubs "learn to focus, peering at small moving quarry; they stalk, chew beetles, snap at airborne insects, while their mother lies in the grass, exhausted by them. She brings fresh carcasses, which they tug at, shaking their heads, twisting off strips of carrion."
This beautifully realised transformation is powerfully suggestive. The change which comes over the perfect, all absorbing relationship of Sophia and her husband may be that change which distances the man as the wife becomes a mother. Or it may be the way in which one person is drawn away into a life of her own. There is no need for the events to be determined because the fantasy has much greater resonance than any realistic telling.
In such tightly focussed stories Sarah Hall is able to convey an intense experience powerfully and use that experience to suggest so much more. The experience becomes an exploration.
In Later, His Ghost, the man makes his way with a manic, obsessive determination through a city, a civilization, destroyed by the ceaseless wind. His purpose is to obtain some fragment of print which might still remain somewhere in the ruined city.
Emma, in Luxury Hour, is returning from a cold swim in the open-air lido when she meets a lover who left her. After the politenesses, after he has left, she stayed crouched in the grass beyond the track “until her legs were stiff”. She imagines she might watch him swim, “his body a long shadow under the surface”.
Zachary, Joe and Becca are following a vertiginous ruined rail track through the South African bush. Becca stands immobile with fear on the viaduct above the sea: “Its waves kept coming, white-tipped, the same, the same, the same, as if it was an amnesiac.”
Evie returns home and silently eats a large chocolate bar, “a look of almost sexual concentration on her face” and it is that sexual concentration which the story pursues to the edge of immolation.
These stories are powerful because of the fierce, insistent precision of Sarah Hall's imagination. They are challenging because of the unflinching eye with which she dissects the extremes of our nature. They are truly remarkable stories.