Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday 1 September 2012

"The Beautiful Indifference" by Sarah Hall (Faber, 2011)

"one of the greatest writers of her generation", says the blurb. She certainly knows how to spin a literary yarn - the interspersed details are sharp, the progression and surprise of the characters' thoughts are persuasive. She may be best known as a novelist, but the craft of short story writing is evident here.

The main characters in this book are all female (teenage to middle-age) and articulate. They often display body/emotion splits mediated by animals. The characters are (or will be) unhappy, or someone dies. The themes don't vary that much - life boils down to love and death with a bit of sex in between (the blurb describes the writing as "deeply erotic". I think not). The women don't internally change much during the stories. Instead they come to terms with their situation, begin to live the way they (secretly or otherwise) think. There are few similes. Animals and water are used as key symbols.

In "Butcher's Perfume", Kathleen is friends with Manda from a physical (even rough) family who work with horses. Kathleen's mother is dead. Her father's rather passive. Manda's parents run the family. Kathleen observes them with interest. In a barn, Kathleen sees a horse that's endured long-term mistreatment. She fetches Manda's brother who thinks Kathleen wants sex with him. When he sees the horse he freaks, and gets his brothers to help him maim the horse's owner. At the end we're told that Manda's mother has called her new pony "Sweet Kathleen".

"The Beautiful Indifference" features a female author awaiting her male lover in a place like York for a weekend break. She doesn't like reading fiction. She's reading a book about modern protheses, those which can be directly controlled by the mind. Her lover's a doctor who helped amputate a leg recently, but the patient died. In the street a horse breaks free of its carriage, running away. The lover helps the injured driver who may have a broken hip. The driver seems more concerned about the horse than himself. We learn that the lover's maybe 20 years younger than the woman, that she's childless (maybe barren), that her married friends think she's taken the easy option. He leaves, she drives homeward. In the middle of the countryside she stops. She has 3 packs of painkillers in her purse. We learn that her mother killed herself at the main character's age. At the end "The hills were around her. She took up her purse, opened the car door and stepped into them. it was like opening a book"

This story has the most mind/body references - runaway horse vs rider; city vs countryside; protheses; her physical enjoyment of life vs her suddenly revealed unhappiness.

"Bees" is in the 2nd person and alternates between 2 strands. In one the main character finds dead insects on her lawn. A bee on her palm is like "Teasel. Half-burnt paper". She wonders what killed them. In the other thread we learn how she escaped from a marriage that included domestic violence. At the end she's in the garden with a fearless fox that "follows the heavy, resinous flight of a bee. It is a candid little hunter. It crouches for a moment, then springs up on its back legs. The jaws open and snap shut, and as it lands it shakes its red head furiously" Pain? Revenge?

In "The Agency" a bored mother of two young childen mixes with the older, well-to-do women of the area. She finds out about "The Agency". Our guesses about what it is are confirmed when at the end she's returning from hotel sex and meets a friend who seems to know what she's been up to. The weakest of the pieces.

"She Murdered mortal He" - On an African holiday a couple have argued. The woman walks off along a beach. A stray dog follows her. At the next village she shoos it away, stops for a beer, decides that they're going to break up. As she starts walking back the dog rejoins her. There's blood around its mouth. At the base of a cliff the waves are surging, covering the beach. The dog goes no further but she makes it through, soaked to the waist. When she returns to the holiday complex in the jungle she finds that her partner's been taken to hospital, a tendon bitten through. She asks "What was it? Was it a leopard?" "No", one of the workers tells her, "There are no leopards". The dog is her familiar. It does what her own body can't do. It's the body that takes revenge, the body that decides.

In "The Nightlong River" nature's showing signs of a cold winter ahead. Magda, Dolly's friend, is ill. Because of the weather, minks invade from the North, living by the river, killing for the sake of it. There's a cull. The main character's involved - "the night welcomed me, gave me senses. I was struck by the ability of the river to ferry odours on its back. It seemed to enhance everything it touched" (p.160). Dolly collects the skins, makes a cape for Magda. There are record snowfalls, the premonitions were true - "I remembered the lavish berries in the autumn hedgerows and thought of those telltale stains on her petties". Magda dies in May, buried with her cape. After, "night after night I dreamed of the river. I dream it now: a river of stolen perfumes, winding its way through our reverse Eden" (p.166). Life goes on, the river keeps flowing.

"Vuotjärvi" - A couple are staying by a lake. The water's red, nearly body temperature with mysterious depths. Her lover decides to swim to an island an hour away. She worries about him, wants to commit herself to him, decides to set off in a rowing boat, but when the boat starts to sink she heads back - to the nearest point of the coast if not their rented cottage. Water takes them both over.

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