I like my lit a little mucky. I like to wince, look away from a page, close an eye and sneak a peek. I like it when pretty is hip-checked, when a scene gets manure bombed and when a character has a phlegmy cough. I like real, I like raw, I like dirt under fingernails, arm pit hair that can be braided and toenails that clack against a wood floor.
And now, because of all of that, I like Sarah Hall.
She’s not necessarily messy-messy. She’s not like a Japanese horror novelist or anything. But she has this way of taking a story, stripping it down to its blotchy, puckered skin and making it stand under harsh lighting. Her short story collection The Beautiful Indifference is a seven-piece set of stories that include horse torture, dead insects, a white dog with a bloodied muzzle, and a bored housewife who seeks the kind of anonymous and strong lover who leaves bruises near her hip bones.
In “Butcher’s Perfume,” a woman considers her friendship with a local ruffian who is a mix of new money and wild-child blood; In the title story, a woman has bucked the trend of her friends and has taken a young lover and they go at each other like feral cats. No one thinks this is a good idea, but she’s not really in a place to consider the long term. In “Bees,” the protagonist is starting a new life in a big city after splitting with her partner, though she’s not sure it’s going to take. She writes in second person:
“Your heart might not have travelled well, closed up in its cavity, quivering and gnawing at the bars of your ribcage during the commute.”
Then there is the garden in her new home, a sort of sanctuary filled with the husks of dead bees, which Hall describes as “Stiff, fossil-looking things. Black-capped, like aristocrats at a funeral, their antennae folded, with mortuary formality, across their eyes.”
In “The Agency,” a woman has a nice home life and a new social circle that includes tell-all women who like their wine. One of the women takes her aside and gives her the contact info for a special place that will meet her darkest sexual needs. In “She Murdered Mortal He,” a couple takes a vacation together, gets into a fight, the woman goes for a walk and encounters a white dog with a bloody muzzle. Then things get a little “Twilight Zone”-y. In “The Nightlong River,” a woman makes a special garment for a sick friend and in “Vuotjarvi” a leisurely afternoon swim turns … who knows.
These are not your heartwarming tales with happy endings, unless you like woman ODing on prescription meds or dead lovers on vacation or a man who has potentially drowned in a Finnish lake. And you should. They’re so much better.