Book review: Madame Zero, by Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall
Sarah Hall
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Sarah Hall has said that “short stories are a reminder that you never get to the bottom of things”. You might interpret this in more ways than one, but one might be that the short story – at least the kind she writes – is a light directed briefly into the mysterious darkness of other people’s lives. Explanations may be offered for what is revealed, but they are always insufficient. Sometimes no explanation is possible. So, for example, in “Mrs Fox”, a young woman, walking with her husband in the woods metamorphoses before his eyes into a fox. He takes her home, protects her, drives their cleaning woman away, but cannot keep her. The call of the wild is too strong. Almost a hundred years ago, David Garnett, wrote a charming, but whimsical, short novel “Lady Into Fox”, which was a great success. Hall’s story is darker; charm isn’t her business. It’s well done, matter-of-fact, yet at the same time disturbing.

There’s a good deal of variety in this collection. “Later, His Ghost” is fashionably dystopian. Great Gales, the product of climate change, blow continually and destructively, tearing buildings apart. A young man survives in a heavily defended house which he shares with a pregnant woman, the English teacher in his old school. Taking precautions, he ventures into the ruined town searching for a copy of The Tempest, drama of transformation.

There’s little of light or happiness in these stories. In “Wilderness” Lizette has “gotten weepy about her life and talked about how she was nothing now, and how Jesus was forgiving her for what she had been before. The crimes were unspecified. Marrying Zachary perhaps, or “getting banged by multiple Boden photographers at the age of sixteen.” “Evie” is a story about a woman who, to the surprise of her husband, first develops an insatiable desire for sweet things, then for alcohol, then for sex performed as she watches a porn film. Here we are given a medical explanation, but left wondering if it is adequate. “‘This isn’t me,’ she’d say. ‘I don’t know if it’s me.’” Personality in Hall’s world is fluid, unfixed.

The best of the stories, “Goodnight Nobody,” features a young girl, Jem, troubled and puzzled by the death of a baby, mauled by a terrier. This story has a solidity others lack. It is naturalistic, fleshed-out. Jem’s family is recognisable, absent father, small half-brother, grandmother who does the cooking, and a strong-willed mother who is employed in the hospital mortuary, laying out bodies. She got the job by answering an advertisement. “‘She had the right disposition’, Gran said. ‘She’s always been like that, your mother’.”

Sarah Hall writes about people on the dangerous edge of things. “Case Study 2”, for instance, is a social worker’s report on a disturbed, ill-nourished boy brought up in a seedy commune. It’s inconclusive, like most of the stories, but offers an acute picture of well-meaning incomprehension. It ends badly, the social worker reflecting that “perhaps treatment proceeded too rapidly and a full range of risk-influencing factors were not identified and taken into account.” This is nicely done – the reader being expected to penetrate the bureaucratically correct language and realise that if these factors were indeed unidentified, they couldn’t be taken into account. It’s a story in which a disturbed child is reduced to being “a case”.

There’s a nice diversity of subjects in these stories, and Hall is a writer who turns sentences nicely and has a gift for description. But there are two weaknesses. The first, and more important, is that her characters, with rare exceptions such as the young girl Jem, seem to be specimens rather than fully imagined people; she keeps them at a distance, presenting them almost as case studies. They lack individuality, and so it is hard to care about them, or even be interested in them. One has the impression that the idea for a story came first and characters had to be found to people it. Second, as with the stories of so many writers today, there is a slackness and little urgency in the narrative. So they stay on the page rather than entering the reader’s imagination. What happens next doesn’t really matter.

*Madame Zero, by Sarah Hall, Faber & Faber, 192pp, £12.99