“A superb collection, packed with compassion, fear, courage and love” – Madame Zero by Sarah Hall

shmzThere’s no pretending we weren’t gagging to get hold of this one: each of Hall’s books to date has been a belter, from the dystopian/feminist The Carhullan Army to the quiet historical exploration of community and the natural world in both Haweswater and, more recently, The Wolf Border – and, of course, we loved her massively accomplished debut collection, The Beautiful Indifference. It’s hardly a shock, either, that her short fiction has remained in the spotlight in the meanwhile, with not one but two pieces from Madame Zero having been lauded by the UK’s most prestigious story prizes (The BBC and Sunday Times awards, respectively). This latest collection, then, is, unsurprisingly, just as complex, haunting and thought-provoking as its predecessor: its nine stories display, without exception, Hall’s exemplary command of voice, characterisation and theme. She’s one of the UK’s top writers – if not one of the world’s top writers – and you should be reading Madame Zero right now. If you want more detail, though, here goes.

The opener, ‘Mrs Fox’, is the one you’ve probably already read – it won the BBC Short Story Prize in 2013 – but if not, it’s a handy sampler of the ideas and motifs Hall’s ruminating over throughout the book. The narrator’s wife, whom he loves very much, metamorphoses rather suddenly into (you guessed it) a fox, and now he’s got to work out how to accommodate his (unfailing) love, respect and awe into this new reality. This isn’t social realism by any stretch, but nor is it magical realism, nor a fairy tale, nor anything else ‘quirky’ or self-consciously analogical; rather, it’s Hall exploring themes of wildness and domesticity, belonging and power, the human and the animal, and the primal, perhaps feral, elements of affection, connection and parenthood, via a tale that’s strange, sure, but also unremittingly tender. Her language and plot are stark; her eye for physical detail is both forensic and delicate, and she refuses to indulge in easy endings.

This attentiveness to the liminal zone between so-called civilisation and wilderness, with particular note made of how parenthood might be seen to occupy this arena, is evidenced over and over as the book continues: ‘Later, His Ghost’, set in the ruins of an England savaged by climate change, uses the brutal force of its killer weather conditions to (amongst other things) consider the terrifying responsibility/mission of (impending) parenthood; ‘Goodnight Nobody’ takes the killing of a baby by a dog as the starting point for a girl to begin to confront the difficulties of her own problematic family situation; ‘Wilderness’ show us a young woman paralysed by vertigo on a dodgy footbridge and panicked by the prospect of death and solitude, and gets us thinking about cultural and familial dislocation.

Although particular concerns are repeatedly threaded through many of the stories, there’s enormous variety of style and plot on display here. Hall’s got a Mantel-like facility to alter her tone according to her subject matter, from the scientific reporting in ‘Case Study 2’ (a social worker’s investigation of a child removed from a commune prompts her own breakdown as it draws out themes of parental responsibility and the relationship between the collective and the individual) to the painful regret, barely-suppressed yearning, and guilt, fear, love and panic that suffuse ‘Luxury Hour’, a story in which nothing happens (a woman runs into a former lover; they briefly chat, then pass on) but in which, too, all of this is a seething emotional stew of need and lies and desperation. She’s fantastic when she’s at her most political, examining as she does here men’s and women’s lives and the impact, again, of parenthood/motherhood thereon. ‘Theatre 6’ is a proper punch to the solar plexis: in this one an anaesthetist works on the termination of a pregnancy in a society where abortion has been outlawed. It’s an understated, matter of fact story, but one that gives off a creeping, lingering horror when considered in the real-life context of, say, Ireland or Poland, where women still lack basic legal rights over their own reproductive systems. The final story, ‘Evie’ (shortlisted for the Sunday Times prize in 2013), is one of the book’s most powerful pieces, and a fantastic place to stop: it looks at personality and promiscuity and sexuality and expectations within relationships and how and why we use one another; any more and I’ll risk a really annoying spoiler, but you won’t forget it in a hurry.

Any Cop?: Hall’s that rare writer who’s an absolute master of both short- and long-form fiction. Madame Zero is a superb collection, packed with compassion, fear, courage and love, and – best of all – clear and brilliant prose.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

 

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