Category: Hall Sarah

BBC National Short Story Award 2020: ‘The Grotesques’ by Sarah Hall

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.

Listen to a reading of ‘The Grotesques’.

New Fiction Uncovered column: ten short story writers

My second guest column for Fiction Uncovered is now live. I want to cover my main reading interests in these columns, so this one is a celebration of short stories. It’s a list of ten recommended contemporary British short story writers. It’s not a ‘top ten’ as such, because of course there are more than ten authors whom I could have included – and I’d love to hear about your favourite short story writers in the comments.

Further reading

Here are links to my reviews of some of the stories and books mentioned in the column:

The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers
‘Butcher’s Perfume’ by Sarah Hall
The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan
The Stone Thrower by Adam Marek
This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor
Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Leading the Dance by Sarah Salway
Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical and Everyone’s Just So So Special by Robert Shearman
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Keep up to date with my Fiction Uncovered columns here.

Sarah Hall, The Carhullan Army (2007)

I come to The Carhullan Army relatively late, after it has been pretty firmly established as a significant novel – it was shortlisted for the Clarke Award, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and Tiptree Award , and came top in the Torque Control readers’ poll of best sf novels by women from 2001-10. It threw me a little at first to discover what an unassuming book this is; its narrative voice is not undescriptive, but is far more focused on what it wants to say than on how it’s saying it – yet that same clarity is what gives Sarah Hall’s novel much of its heft.

The voice belongs to a woman who claims only the name ‘Sister’; she left behind her life of pointless labour and repression in Rith (i.e. Penrith), and fled to the farm at Carhullan, high in the Cumbrian hills. There, a self-sufficient community of women – established and led by the charismatic ex-soldier Jackie Nixon – lived beyond the reach of the Authority’s oppressive regime. Though unregistered, and therefore effectively outlaws, the Carhullan women were mostly pacifist; though Jackie Nixon had other ideas, and had been creating a militaristic unit within the commune, to take the fight back to the Authority. The story of The Carhullan Army is not that of the eventual battle – we learn the outcome of that on the very first page – but rather that of Sister’s personal journey to, and transformation within, Carhullan.

The physical and personal – landscape and character – are intimately connected in The Carhullan Army. The town belongs to the Authority, the extremist faction who came to power in the wake ofBritain’s environmental and economic turmoil; it’s a grey, harsh, decaying place. The countryside, in contrast, is the domain of the Carhullan women: Sister knows that Jackie Nixon comes from old Cumbrian stock, and has the feeling, as she travels further away from Rith, of entering Jackie’s territory. At the start of her journey, Sister considers herself reasonably familiar with the landscape, and a competent hiker; her first encounter with the Carhullans shows how much less at home she is in this environment than are they, and hence also how far apart she and they are ideologically. Towards novel’s end, when Sister has become one of Carhullan’s insurgents, she reflects on how Jackie’s training has changed her, and explicitly links this with the landscape:

She broke down the walls that had kept us [women] contained. There was a fresh red field on the other side and in its rich soil were growing all the flowers of war that history had never let us gather. It was beautiful to walk in. As beautiful as the fells that autumn. (p.197)

This passage also points to one of the other central themes: that of gender and violence. There’s a gendered element to the Authority’s oppression: women are forced to have contraceptive implants inserted, and Hall clearly frames this as a violation. Jackie’s thoughts are of retaliation: ‘What do you think, Sister?’ she asks. ‘Do women have it in them to fight if they need to? […] ‘Do we have to submit to survive?’ (p. 116). Sister replies: ‘I think we’re capable of attacking when it’s something worth fighting for’ (p. 117) – but it’s only over time, and subtly, that Jackie brings Sister around to living those words wholeheartedly. Of course, the issue is intractable: Sister’s reasons for fighting against the Authority are entirely understandable; but, to do so, she becomes like them, using their methods.

Given the time at which I read The Carhullan Army, my thoughts turn naturally towards Jane Rogers’ Clarke-winning The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which also portrays a female protagonist making her way quite reasonably towards a decision with unreasonable implications. I appreciate both novels for the clarity with which they depict the transformations of their respective characters, and for how fully they show the harshness and complexity of what their choices mean. But I think Hall’s novel ultimately has the edge, because Sister’s decision feels more grounded in the world than Jessie’s; and there’s something more forceful about seeing an adult, rather than an adolescent, going through that kind of process. The Carhullan Army is a quietly powerful novel that lives long in the mind; one that I suspect rewards – and that I’m certain deserves – repeated readings.

Sarah Hall’s website
Some other reviews of The Carhullan Army: Victoria Hoyle for Strange Horizons; Richard Palmer at Solar Bridge; Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria.

Sarah Hall, ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ (2010)

A nicely observed chronicle of the friendship between two Cumbrian girls: Kathleen, the narrator; and Manda, the tough daughter of the notorious Slessor family I love the way that Hall captures details in this story, such as the almost osmosis-like fashion in which friendships can develop at school. In one lesson, the two girls scribble on each other’s exercise books, then Manda ‘borrows’ a pen from Kathleen, all without a word being spoken. And then:

Something was granted to us afterwards. We were past simply knowing the name of the other and what form we were in. We were allowed to say Hiya in passing, in front of other friends, at the gates of the school, or in Castletown going down to the chippy or the arcade.

The Slessors themselves are portrayed as a family apart from the rest of the community, both physically (with their big house built on the profits of industry, a house  that ‘had no business being built in Cumbria’) and socially (they have the reputation of coming from wilder, harder stock than most — ‘the ones that lit the beacons when other folk hid in cellars and down wells’); an incident involving a horse at the end of the story shows how mysterious the family, and the codes by which they operate, remain to Kathleen.

There’s also a strong sense of place in ‘Butcher’s Perfume’; the Cumbria portrayed here is rather like the Slessors in its harshness. All in all, Hall’s is a very atmospheric piece.

The BBC National Short Story Award 2010

Tomorrow is National Short Story Day; to mark the occasion, I’m blogging the shortlist of this year’s BBC National Short Story Award – namely, these stories:

David Constantine, ‘Tea at the Midland’
Aminatta  Forna, ‘Haywards Heath’
Sarah Hall, ‘Butcher’s Perfume’
Jon McGregor, ‘If It Keeps On Raining’
Helen Oyeyemi, ‘My Daughter the Racist’

The above titles will turn into links as I make my way down the list.

What I won’t be doing, however, is trying to predict the winner, because that was announced at the end of last month. David Constantine’s story was declared the winner; as it’s first on the list, I’ll be interested to see what standard it sets for the rest.

EDIT, 21st Dec: I’ve now written a concluding post in which I pick my winner.

Further links
Podcasts of the shortlisted stories
The Award at BBC Radio 4
The Award at
Booktrust, which administers the Award
Comma Press, publishers of the anthology

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