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The Beautiful Indifference: Stories
by Sarah Hall
Harper Perennial; 187 p. 

“Butcher’s Perfume,” the story that opens Sarah Hall’s new collection The Beautiful Indifference, itself begins with a note-perfect sentence. “Later, when I knew her better, Manda told me how she’d beaten two girls at once outside the Cranemakers Arms in Carlisle.” It ably sets up what is to come, both in the story that follows and in the larger book that contains it: unlikely friendships, sporadic eruptions of violence, and structures that pivot neatly in time and space. In the seven stories here, Hall examines cruelty and alienation; relationships and friendships begin and end; refuges and homes turn cold; nature remains indifferent. Hall’s prose can be intimate or elliptical, but the effect is never less than striking.

Animals are prominently featured in these stories, sometimes disrupting human interactions and sometimes accentuating them. Horses figure into the climaxes of two of them, foxes and dogs offer menace, and “Bees” opens with the protagonist discovering the dead bodies of “dozens and dozens” of the titular insect. But Hall is equally skilled at evoking the space within human minds, as this passage from the title story suggests:

She stood from the bed and looked at herself in the mirror. Her skin was luminous and secretive. She stared. After a minute or so her appearance became unstructured, a collection of shapes and colours. There had been no plan, not for any of this. Perhaps she had planned nothing in her life. And yet here she was, in this room, in this form.

Evolving group dynamics also factor into much of the book. “Butcher’s Perfume” charts its narrator’s relationship with a volatile family in her hometown, while “She Murdered Human He” finds its setting among a number of tourists visiting Mozambique. (One of its characters alludes to what appears to be this Henning Mankell essay.) Throughout the book, Hall ably conveys isolation through a variety of methods. In “Bees,” the protagonist’s seclusion as she travels to London after the disintegration of her relationship is evoked through precise usage of the second person. In “Vuotjärvi,” the isolation is more literal: a couple in Finland, musing on theories of human extinction. There’s a disappearance while swimming, an abortive rescue, a boat unfit to travel on water. This story closes the collection on a stark and haunting note, its characters left in an uncertain state, positioned between existence and the lack thereof.

It would be unfair to characterize Hall’s prose here as dour, however. Earlier in the same story, she notes that “Helsinki was attractive, a clean blend of modern and historic. It lacked people.” In telling the story of its narrator’s encounter with an enigmatic organization, “The Agency” manages to reveal much of its plot elliptically. And, though The Beautiful Indifference abounds with atmospheric passages, Hall’s ability to plot can impress. What at first seems like a series of fragmentary scenes in “She Murdered Mortal He” turns out to be a buildup to a jarring narrative sting — the unfamiliar made familiar and then revealed as something utterly unknowable. That, ultimately, is the territory Hall repeatedly plumbs in this collection; throughout, she expertly evokes unquiet thoughts, broken lives, and haunting encounters with nature, and the work that results never fails to be thrilling.

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