‘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)