Sarah Hall’s collection of short stories are about females not of a certain age: old. The characters range from young Cumbrian girls in the “Butcher’s Perfume” to early middle age; with a mean of 30s’ relationships. Ms. Hall, who was born in Cumbria, England, through the insecurities of women in tenuous relationships, explores the universal divide between country and city, married and single.
In “Bees” a young farm woman, recovering from an abusive relationship, moves into her friend from school London flat. She hopes to find safe harbor and emotional reconstruction, but she is sleepless and spends time in the flat’s small garden trying to unravel a daily assortment of dead bees. A Cumbrian woman is having a sexual relationship with a lover from London in “The Beautiful Indifference”. Her married country friends cackle she is deferring “the hard things in life.” The must decide how to cast herself as her citified love relationship is tinged with pain and pleasure.
Insecure relationships are played out on holiday in “She Murdered Mortal He” and “Vuotjärvi”. In the former, A woman goes for a walk along a deserted South African resort’s beach after her boyfriend suddenly breaks up with her. The “murdered mortal he” is the boyfriend, but which bitch is responsible is unclear. In the latter story, a Finnish holiday ends in disappearance or death. This is a serious relationship, but there is hope and fear. The boyfriend does return from his swim to one of the islands and the woman goes in search. Self-preservation is rationalized in each story.
Death is a result in “Butcher’s Perfume”. An initially brutish coming of age tale of Cumbrian girls with distinct sexual and moral proclivities, death is the adhesive. A lighter story, country women in “The Agency” find an outlet to walk on the wild side.
The best story in my opinion is “The Nightlong River”. It is beautifully written tale of humanity between two young women, one of whom is near death. Its venue is the country, told by one who is familiar with nature, the culture of hunting, and gender roles. The first paragraph sets the scene.
” We knew from the November berries what the next months would bring. Everywhere they were hung and clotted in the bushes, ripe and red, like blisters of blood. The hollies came out in autumn, and gave us ideas about selling genuine wreaths at the Hired Lad during Advent, rather than staining ivy with sheep raddle as we’d done in the balder years. Rose hips clung on well past their season, until the birds eventually went with them. The yarrow and rowan hung out their own gaudy bunting. But it was the hawthorn that was the truest messenger that year, for it’d blossomed wildly in May too. The hawthorn sent the hedgerows ruddy as a battle. It meant a full season of snow. It meant hoar frosts that would stop the hearts of mice in their burrows and harden tree sap under its white grip. The ground would only ever half thaw until spring, like a clod of beef brought from the pantry and moved from cold room to cold room. Flocks would be lost under drifts.”
Ms. Hall is a well-known award winning author. She has been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, received the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and others. Her novels include “Haweswater”, “The Electric Michelangelo”, “Daughters of the North” and “How to Paint a Dead Man”. Her prose in these stories, apart from “The Nightlong River” is unbellished and journeyman descriptive of scene. The latter is not meant in criticism, because these stories are character driven. They are quick and easy reads, and remain merely entertaining light fare. Interestingly, “Butcher’s Perfume”, my second favorite story in the collection, and “Vuotjarvi” were both short-listed for prizes. “The Nightlong River” originally was published online in http://www.pulp.net under the title “Mink”. Reading is personal.