Monday, 21 January 2013

Week Three - Jude

The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall (2011)
Recommended by Rebecca Bream

I love short stories. They don't take long to read, after all. When it's been a cow of week – as my last one has with work – reading one on the way home is always a treat. When they're good, they're  lovely half-hours of pleasure, like an episode of a soap opera when you've just got in, or a hot bath with your favourite magazine. In Sarah Hall's case though, these half-hours usually involve bigger, fuller language, and far fewer ads.

Rebecca Bream – Beck – recommended me this book. She's not long had her second son, and told me she lapped this up. Beck is cool as fuck, calm, funny, and an Actual Proper Journalist, someone who's worked down diamond mines and oil rigs while I've been at home in my 'jamas. My fondest memories are her are at my wedding, simultaneously DJing and dancing to The Breeders on a bench in stockinged feet. Aso, if you want a crash course in getting to the front of a moshpit, with charm rather than bother, then Beck's your girl.

Booker Prize-shortlisted and longlisted, Sarah Hall is also an impressive woman. Her four novels up to now (I say confidently, having had a quick scan through her website) have explored the destruction of 1930s Cumbria, dystopian sci-fi, the world of fine art, and a man who leaves Morecambe Bay for Coney Island. This is her first book of short stories, and I'll admit here and now that I found few of them tough. Hall writes the kind of prose that book reviewers call “luminous” – a metaphor that's always stuck in my craw, because words don't bloody glow. But she does describe nature in bright colours, and with plenty of texture.

Take the first page of The Nightlong River. It involves “November berries...hung and clotted in the bushes, ripe and red, like blisters of blood”. “Yarrow and rowan” hanging out “their own gaudy bunting”. Hawthorns sending “the hedgerows as ruddy as battle”. Typing those phrases out now, they read beautifully, don't they? I suppose what I wanted from that story from the start was more pace – a plot that grabbed me straightaway, that didn't take its merry time to gently weave me in. I also realise this shows my flaws as a reader, much more than it shows Sarah Hall's as a writer.

I wasn't surprised to find out that Sarah Hall's also a poet. As well as that fulsome, visual stuff she conjures up, she's always leaving little mysteries that never get solved. I loved the book's title story (are they called title stories?) and how Hall slowly unravelled the tale of its protagonist and her lover – but never completely. I also gobbled up The Agency, which I suddenly realise was another saucy offering. No, I haven't – and won't – read Fifty Shades Of Grey, but I bet this is ruder and filthier. Rather than disclosing the mucky details that are suggested within it, we find our protagonist going into her living room, hours later, to “clear up the children's mess”. The gaps in our knowledge aren't filled. We're allowed imaginations.

My favourite story was Bees, about a woman who'd just moved to London, which began with her sitting in a garden, thinking about the dead insects around her. Typical me, really: it's the second shortest story here. But its description of a character losing something – still wanting something they shouldn't really have – captured feelings I'd once had, so powerfully, so dramatically, that I found myself suddenly standing up between Tottenham Hale and Blackhose Road.

I mean, that's a proper short story, isn't it? I'll definitely allow Sarah more time. One of these days – she says, contemplating next week's book with fear – I might even allow myself some.