This post is part of a series on the 2020 BBC National Short Story Award.
With this story, Sarah Hall becomes the first author to be shortlisted for the BBCNSSA four times. ‘The Grotesques’ is as fine a story as I’ve come to expect from her.
Like Jan Carson’s story, ‘The Grotesques’ focuses on a family with its own rules and hierarchies, though Hall’s fictional family seems rather more oppressive. The narration leaves no doubt as to who’s in charge:
Perhaps she could say she had done something. Mummy would. Mummy could change a story or revise history with astonishing audacity, and seemed to instantly believe the new version.
The person thinking this is Dilly, on her thirtieth birthday. At the start of the story she is shaken by the sight of a homeless man whose face has been covered with fruit – probably a student prank. This brings a note of disorder into Dilly’s strictured world.
Dilly returns home to a party: her mother’s tea party, that is, rather than a celebration of her own special day. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that Dilly’s mother is controlling her relationship with food, and there are hints of other dark secrets in the family as well.
The tone of Hall’s narration gives a feeling of being at a remove from reality. I’m not going to give away the ending, but there’s cause to wonder whether it describes something that has happened, might happen, or is just about to happen – or perhaps even all three.