Tag: Sarah Hall

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’.

BBC National Short Story Award 2013: the result

Last night, the 2013 BBC National Short Story Award was won by Sarah Hall for her story ‘Mrs Fox.; Lucy Wood was runner-up, for ‘Notes from the House Spirits’. It’s a good result, I think: Hall’s story, about a man whose relationship starts to break down when his wife undergoes a profound transformation (which may or may not be literal, for all the difference it makes), has a brilliant sense of wildness and mystery. I’ve already written about Wood’s tale in my review of Diving Belles; it was one of my favourite stories in her collection.

Actually, Hall’s and Wood’s were two of my three favourite stories on the Award shortlist (the third was ‘Barmouth’, Lisa Blower’s depiction of a woman’s life depicted through her caravan holidays, which creates a wonderful sense of time and place, and captures the melancholy of change). Interestingly, both the first- and second-place stories make use of the fantastic to explore personal concerns and notions of change. You can still pick up a copy of the Award anthology, which I’d suggest is well worth doing.

Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013: Sarah Hall

Whenever I’ve read Sarah Hall’s work previously (see my posts on The Carhullan Army and ‘Butcher’s Perfume‘), I have always been struck by her use of landscape and strong sense of place. I see those qualities again in ‘The Reservation’, which is one of those extracts in the Granta anthology that really makes me feel excited about reading the full novel.

Hall’s protagonist is Rachel, who returns to Cumbria for the first time in six years, having been working on a reservation in Idaho. She is here for a new commission from a wealthy entrepreneur, but also to see her dying mother. There are suggestions of an interesting contrast to be explored between the different spaces of the Reservation and the entrepreneur’s estate; and the implication that the hospice where Rachel’s mother lives is a kind of reservation itself. I am suitably intrigued about Hall’s novel-to-come.

This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4Click here to read the rest.

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.

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