‘Mrs Fox’ by Sarah Hall

Nerve and instinct. Her thousand feral programmes. Should she not flee into the borders, kicking away the manmade world?

Like Angela Carter, Hall is a great prose stylist. Unlike Carter, who sometimes seems intoxicated by her own linguistic fireworks, Hall is all about control. She is chasing a different kind of literary kick. While Carter deals in mythic transformations, ‘Mrs Fox’ is something almost anti-mythic. It is weirdly mundane, extraordinarily prosaic in its careful and delicate descriptions and scrupulous account of events. It’s as if this kind of thing happens all the time: the metamorphosis of a woman into a feral creature. Hall commits completely to this fantastic notion, leaving no room for doubt. Reading this, one feels that reality is being stretched, being asked to contain more than it should be capable of. It is an astonishing achievement.

Winner of the BBC National Short Story Prize, 2013. First published in 2014 by Faber as a Kindle single, and collected in Madame Zero, Faber, 2017. Available to read online on the Toast magazine website)

‘Butcher’s Perfume’ by Sarah Hall

My wife is from Cumbria, and we go all the time – not to tourist central, but to the south lakes, the bits where Cumbrians live. Sarah Hall’s story might be from the other end of the county, but I love it for the feel of the grit and scramble of poor rural life, the strangeness of the out of the way corners of England, and above all the language – the odd, rough, Viking-inflected words of Cumbrian dialect.

First published in 2010 by Comma Press as part of the shortlist for the BBC National Short Story Award, then collected in The Beautiful Indifference, Faber, 2011

‘Live that you may Live’ by Sarah Hall

Sotheby’s commissioned this story to showcase a 19th Century carved mahogany bed for its ‘Erotic: Passion & Desire’ sale. Hall’s story is set in a humbler bed, where a girl-child wakes in the night. Her imaginings, and those of her mother, sweep into a dreamlike narration of the making and unmaking of women, past and to come. Though the carved bed is not described, the story works ekphrastically, leaving the mind full of the bed’s dark veneer, the deep glow of its wood, and its finely carved motifs: a siren, swans, wavelets and the crimped edges of cockleshells… The story’s warnings and promises are sensed like those felt on contact with an object that has journeyed through centuries, absorbing countless stories on the way. 

First published, in a slightly different version, as ‘The Swan and the Courtesan’ by Sotheby’s on 2 February 2017, and is available to read here. Collected in Sudden Traveller, Faber & Faber, 2019

‘Butcher’s Perfume’ by Sarah Hall

I’d forgotten the family in this story were former travellers or a family with an indiscernible past, so it was intriguing to rediscover it. The story brims with energy and a latent violence, first shown by the fight between the main character Manda and a couple of school mates, which makes it sound brutal and rough, which it isn’t. The story fizzes in its own particular world, wonderfully evoked by Hall with her use of vocabulary – ‘brobbs’ ‘gannan’ and ‘dobby stones’ – to set scenes in the family home where Manda’s parents have an unashamedly robust and lusty marriage and her brothers are kind of wild. 

Structurally, it’s interesting that literally the first three out of four sections are observations about the family and the narrator, Kathleen’s involvement with them. In the final quarter the story takes off as Kathleen encounters a neglected horse. The family’s rough justice towards the farmer who has inflicted such pain is a swift as the telling. Full frontal and adept. We’re given a chance to see the family before they go into action inflicting their own version of justice, but the story is rich in the telling and generous in its portrayal of those sometimes seen at the margins.

First published in BBC National Short Story Award 2010, Comma Press. Collected in The Beautiful Indifference, Faber, 2013

‘Mrs Fox’ by Sarah Hall

A couple live comfortably in their nice house, in their nice lives. They’re content. Until one day, without warning, the wife turns into a fox. Her husband tries to adjust, to keep her content in their old life but her new body, until he realises the impossibility of what he is doing. A fox cannot be kept as a wife. At the end of the story, he’s resigned to her new self, understanding that he cannot understand her, that she is not his, and perhaps never was. 

First published in 2014 by Faber as a Kindle single, and collected in Madame Zero, Faber, 2017

‘Mrs Fox’ by Sarah Hall

This story, which went on to win the National Short Story Prize, is, like Daisy Johnson’s, a tale of metamorphosis. The short story form seems particularly suited to these – drawing tight boundaries around the boundary-less; building walls around that which can’t be walled in. Hall’s story, when first read, delivers a genuine, galvanising shock: it’s the tale of a married couple, living in comfortable suburbia, for whom all is easy, and comfortable, and well, until the moment when the wife turns into a fox. The story focuses on sex, in the first half, pre-transmutation: the husband and wife love one another and enjoy one another. But the fox whom the wife becomes isn’t a metaphor for sex: she’s purely, practically, entirely animal, leaving scat on the floor, musk on doorways, preferring her meat served up live.
The story is told through the husband’s eyes: it becomes clear, after the transformation occurs, that we’ve never known the woman; she’s as inscrutable in her human form as she is in her animal one. And what’s fascinating about the tale, the true strangeness at the heart of it, is not so much the transformation as the man’s reaction to it: his shock, of course, but then his acceptance, and finally his longing, his sense of loss. The fox has cubs, and the man knows them to be his, and he loves them, and their mother. He vows to himself that he’ll protect them, and realises that he cannot; that he has no place in their story. This is a story that obliges us to stay on its surface: try to dig deeper, to find sense or significance, and you find quickly that there’s no give; we simply have to accept what we’re shown. “He has given up looking for meaning,” Hall says of the husband, towards the end. “Why, is a useless question, an unknowable object. It is what it is, in other words. But what it is, is rich, strange, provoking and beautiful.

Originally published in Madame Zero, Faber, 2017

‘Luxury Hour’ by Sarah Hall

Another mother seeks escape in ‘Luxury Hour,’ this time at her local lido, paying a babysitter so she can grab a swim. “Luxury Hour, Daniel called it, as if she was indulging herself, but it was the only time she had without the baby.” On a sunny day, at my own lido, I can’t swim without remembering how Hall’s “light filaments flashed and extinguished in the rocking fluid”.  This story is simpler than many of Hall’s, which often veer towards the fantastical, but it cuts to the quick of life as a new mother trying to ignore her midriff in the changing room mirror as she searches for a snatch of the person she once was. A chance encounter with an old lover adds a flick of Hall’s trademark eroticism; we learn her name is Emma and that she cheated on her then boyfriend, now husband. We know she feels trapped.

Collected in Madame Zero, Faber & Faber, 2017

‘Vuotjärvi’ by Sarah Hall

There’s a watery theme emerging but I make no apologies. Nor for choosing two by Sarah Hall. There is more swimming, more sensual evocation of time with a lover, and plenty more of Hall’s brilliant wordsmithery in this story about an unpronounceable Finnish lake. Air is glutinous, silence “benthic”, and no, I’m not ashamed to say I had to look that up. (“Of, relating to, or occurring at the bottom of a body of water.’) Even the mosquitoes get painted with care, “their legs floating long and dusty behind them”. A sense of doom builds from the opening two lines: “She stood on the pontoon and watched him swim out. His head above the lake surface grew smaller and more distant.” Another story that will haunt any lake swimmers among you. 

Collected in The Beautiful Indifference, Faber & Faber, 2011

‘She Murdered Mortal He’ by Sarah Hall

This is a brilliantly unsettling story. A young British couple are staying in an otherwise deserted luxury camping resort on the wild coast of southern Africa. They’ve driven up from South Africa and the local language is Portuguese so presumably they’re in Mozambique, but the country is never named. Their relationship is unravelling and the woman has stormed off for a walk on the beach. She is stunned and confused by the sudden shift between them. How could he talk like this when only that morning they’d had such good sex? “Sex is not rational”, he replies. As she walks, she churns through the events of recent days. She feels both safe and unsafe in Africa. Danger is everywhere: “close to the surface, or rupturing through”. Turning back, she sees a white shape in the distance. She hopes it’s her boyfriend coming to find her but it turns out to be a large white dog, a female with a distended belly and long black teats and eyes that are “very, very bright”. The interaction between the woman and the dog is beautifully delineated, moving from blind terror to a kind of playful companionship. After drinking alone in a bar in the nearby town, the woman returns to the hotel along the beach in the dark, meeting the dog again. The way the story ends is truly shocking. The horror isn’t supernatural but Hall manages to suggest the power of unconscious drives, which is somehow even more disturbing than the idea of monsters or ghosts. The writing itself is both restrained and lush and always beautifully precise.

First published in Granta 117, Horror, 27 October 2011. Collected in The Beautiful Indifference, Faber & Faber, 2012. Read it here

‘Luxury Hour’ by Sarah Hall

A woman takes a morning off from her husband and new baby to go swimming at a lido and runs into an ex-boyfriend, freshly returned from his travels. This obviously works on its own, but might also be a reference to the last third of Jane Eyre, if looked at with the right eyes. I read this story first in a collection of shorts inspired by Jane Eyre and only later came across it in Hall’s collection Madame Zero. On reading it a second time, I was aware of the strange additional layer of context that I might never have assumed otherwise – the ex-boyfriend could be a St John Rivers proxy or could simply be an ex-boyfriend. In a way, this confusion is emblematic of Hall’s strength as a writer; you can take her writing almost any way you want to and its power, at its core, remains the same.

‘Luxury Hour’, regardless of context, is a story about swimming, about the freedom and fierce joy of it and the way the violence of outdoor swimming can briefly throw you out of your life. Wiry and tender, like almost all of Hall’s writing, it captures the ache of dissatisfaction and the panic of choice, made all the sharper by watching this woman go from the cold clarity of the pool straight back to the wooly uncertainty of her life.

Collected in Reader, I Married Him, The Borough Press, 2016, and Madame Zero, Faber & Faber, 2017

‘Mrs Fox’ by Sarah Hall

‘Mrs Fox’ isn’t a first-person telling of motherhood, but for its staggering sentences, for its depiction of motherhood as becoming-animal, for its writing of the mother into folktale, it belongs here. There is a frank curtness to this as with all Sarah Hall’s stories; it is both tautly written and oozily bodily. ‘Mrs Fox’ won the BBC International Short Story Award in 2013. The scene of encounter between husband and wife-become-fox, which I am quoting only in part here, still stalls me.
Beneath one trunk there is an opening, a gash between stones and earth. Her den. … She cocks her head, as if giving him licence to speak. But no, he must not think this way. Nothing of the past is left, except the shadow on his mind. … There are four, they stumble towards their mother. … As she feeds them her eyes blink closed, sensually, then she stares at him.
Privy to this no man could be ready.
First published in 2014 by Faber as a Kindle single, and collected in Madame Zero

‘Evie’ by Sarah Hall

Reviewing can also be the opposite of absorption. Sarah Hall’s Madame Zero, though, knocked me right out of my critical pulpit. In fact it winded me: it took me a week or so to frame any thoughts at all. All the stories were great but I envied ‘Evie’ especially. It’s about sex and threesome, ostensibly “She always invited the other back in. He wanted to watch from the chair; he watched her being. touched, grasped, opened, watched her responding. He began to understand: jealously was only desire; it was wanting to do what he could see was being done to his wife.” But in fact it is about  marriage, and death and illness and madness. I read it over and over: I hope to do as well one day.

First published in The Sunday Times, July 2013 and collected in Madame Zero (Faber, 2017)

‘Butcher’s Perfume’ by Sarah Hall

An in-your-face story about the friendship between two teenagers—the narrator, Kathleen and the volatile Manda. Kathleen is fascinated by Manda and her family. There are dark undercurrents and a sense that violence is always in the wings waiting to erupt.
That’s why we were all afraid of her. That’s why her name went before her — Manda Slessor — and if you heard it said in a room you felt ill at ease, you felt things shift out of the way for its coming into the conversation. Everyone knew she was hard. It was the first thing ever they knew about her. It was her pedigree.
From The Beautiful Indifference, Faber and Faber, 2011

‘Mrs Fox’ by Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall is my favourite writer. Her novel The Electric Michelangelo is my favourite book. I have no time for the ‘but how can you choose?’ brigade. Simple: Hall’s work changed my view of the world. It took me to Coney Island; it inspired my PhD thesis; it speaks to me about my life. I am evangelical about her work.

‘Mrs Fox’ tells the story of a woman who transforms into a fox while her husband attempts to adjust his life around her. Read that sentence again, it’s radical.

From Madame Zero. Winner of the BBC National Short Story Award 2013