In nearly every story in “The Beautiful Indifference,” Sarah Hall achieves a fine balance of language and subject matter. Sometimes the sentences are introverted and brooding, the setting ominous. Sometimes the words are as stubborn and glowering as the characters they describe. Hall finds beauty in unlikely places: in a sudden outburst of rage, or in “the smoke off the pyres and the pools on the abattoir floor.”

In “Butcher’s Perfume,” the powerful opening story of this collection, her mix of dialect words unknown to my dictionary (“gannan pride,” a “kessen moon”) and the crude language of modern youth lends power to her rural setting. You can hear that the people she describes, inhabitants of the remote north of England, are governed by their own rules: even their language refuses to toe the line.

Sarah Hall (Carlisle, 1974) grew up in Cumbria and likes to set her fiction there. It’s a place where the wild beauty of the Lake District, beloved of the Romantic poets, combines with a fierceness in the local character. On the embattled border with Scotland a history of violence lingers on the land. “This was where the raiders met, coming south or north. This was burnt-farm, red-river, raping territory. A landscape of torn skirts and hacked throats, where roofs were oiled and fired, and haylofts were used to kipper children.”

In “Butcher’s Perfume” Hall gives us a portrait of a family called the Slessors, a rich, rough, superstitious, horse-taming, gypsy-descended clan, “forged from the old rage of the north.” Their youngest daughter, Manda, is as fierce as any of them, with “eyes that got set off easily, like a dog (…) prone to attack for no other reason than that it catches you looking its way.” And yet her belligerence makes her beautiful: “it suited her, and she was lit up, the way someone plain looks better when they sing, when suddenly it seems they have bright colours under a dull wing.” The teenage narrator, Kathleen, is befriended by Manda, gets to know the Slessors, and watches as they punish cruelty to horses with their own harsh justice.

Hall likes to pick at the rough knot of people’s feelings for each other, unraveling strands of brutishness and grace. Animals play an important role in these stories, often serving to symbolize humans’ animal nature. In “Bees,” a woman emotionally stripped bare by a divorce moves from the north to London. The moment she arrives, her psyche “a red, essential thing,” seems to leave her: “It happened as you were getting off the train in Euston station (…) There was a sudden internal event, like cramp or a stroke, like waters breaking. Something rose up inside your chest. It split you open. It tugged itself through the walls of muscle, slid to the floor and moved off into the crowd.” Later she spots a fox slipping through the back gardens of London, embodying the easy self-assurance she hopes one day again to feel.

In the title story, the sight of a runaway horse shifts the balance of a romantic weekend. A woman has arranged a rendezvous in a northern town with her younger lover. Her women friends think she is using this impermanent affair to avoid commitment. But for her the “beautiful indifference” she feels in their casual relationship seems to be enough—until the sight of the wild, spooked beast causes her to acknowledge the frustration she harbors beneath her apparent detachment.

The book’s themes come together most obviously—almost too obviously—in “She Murdered Mortal He,” a ghost story set in a resort in an unnamed African country. An English couple come for a vacation but break up unexpectedly. The woman walks into the jungle, where her bewilderment and anger at her lover’s rejection seem to appear in animal form and take revenge. The story is atmospheric but the resolution unsurprising.

The same goes for “The Agency,” a tale of a fortyish professor’s wife who makes use of a male prostitution service. Although the story centers on the woman’s initial hesitation and we see nothing of what happens inside the “agency,” the story reads more like a sexual fantasy than a credible story.

Still, Hall is excellent at this length, and her writing seems more powerful than ever. In her earlier work she leaned on her literary predecessors. “The Electric Michelangelo” (2004), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, owes a debt to Sarah Waters’s “Tipping the Velvet.” “The Carhullan Army” (2007) flirts unsuccessfully with science fiction. But this new book is entirely her own—as is her sensuous, truculent northern voice.

 

Trouw, July 7, 2012. Sarah Hall: The Beautiful Indifference (London: Faber, 2011). De prachtige onverschilligheid (Amsterdam: Anthos, 2012).