One of the trickiest puzzles short story writers face is how to get readers to care about their characters. The first obstacle is the lack of incentive: if we know we’re going to be spending the entirety of a 300 or 400-page novel in somebody’s company, we don’t mind investing in them emotionally; if we’re only going to be spending 20 or 30 pages with them, however, we’re less inclined to make the effort of trying to tune in to their interior life. And then there’s the issue of space: over the course of a novel, an author can develop the bond between reader and protagonist incrementally as the chapters roll by. In a short story, by contrast, there is much less time to sketch in somebody’s personality quirks and show what motivates them – economy and discipline are key.
Against this backdrop, the level of engagement Sarah Hall achieves in some of the stories in her latest collection, Sudden Traveller, is staggering. It may only be 15 pages long, but by the end of “Orton” you feel as if you’ve known the wry protagonist all your life. Similarly, the story that gives the collection its title is only 21 pages long, and yet after only two or three of them you’re fully immersed in the narrator’s world.
“Orton” is the story of an elderly woman, recently widowed, who has been fitted with a futuristic implant that allows her to stop her heart beating at the push of a button. When we meet her she is on the bus, on her way to a secluded spot in the Lake District – a place of special significance to her – in order to end her life. Hall’s writing is so subtle that you reach the end of the story with an incredibly rich sense of who this woman is, and yet no idea where that sense came from. It’s only when you go over the text again that you pick up the small-but-telling asides that make up the mosaic of her character: the fact that she was considering wearing a hat for the occasion of her suicide but decided not to because it would seem “too formal, a bit overdone”; the fact that she and her late husband joked that she was going to be an “ender” after she’d had her implant fitted; the fact that, when she is finally put through to a call centre in order to activate her implant and asked to name to current prime minister in order to demonstrate her soundness of mind, she feels it necessary to tell the man on the line – “pleasant, intelligent, a young man from Newcastle” – that she didn’t vote for him.
In “Sudden Traveller” Hall achieves a similar result although using a very different technique. Here, the constant use of the second person encourages the reader to put themselves repeatedly in the position of the protagonist – a middle-aged woman trying desperately to juggle the demands of a new baby and a terminally ill mother. You feel you’ve lived her life because you’re repeatedly invited to imagine what that might be like.
Of course, a short story can still be effective even if we know next-to-nothing about the characters, and there’s all manner of literary alchemy in evidence here, from the will-they-won’t-they tension of “The Woman The Book Read,” in which a man recognises an old flame, to the hypnotic inevitability of a well-drowning in “Who Pays?” to the almost hallucinogenic magic realism of “M,” in which a lawyer defending rape victims is transfigured into a lethal avenging angel. In the end though, it’s the most fully realised characters that live on in the memory. Roger Cox
Sudden Traveller, by Sarah Hall, Faber, 129pp, £12.99