The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber $36.99

In this collection of beautiful, unsettling short stories by the author of the bleakly dystopian The Carhullan Army, and the Man Booker-shortlisted The Electric Michelangelo, one can easily trace certain trademark qualities to Sarah Hall's writing.

Most notable is the fierce power of her prose, offset by an acute sensibility for the nuances of landscape and character. These short stories are powerful little concentrations of her talent.

Always, darkness and danger breathe just out of sight. She has a gift for prying on her characters in private, quiet moments - a woman waiting for her lover and looking at herself in the mirror; another woman wandering on the beach after an argument; a woman idly waiting for her lover to swim back to shore - and, like all waiting moments, there is tension - the possibility that the waiting could go either way.

The first, Butcher's Perfume, is set in England's far northwest, in Cumbria, where Hall herself lives - the Border Country, "where the raiders met, coming south or north. This was burnt farm, red-river, raping country". Kathleen tells of her friendship with Manda Slessor, one of a notorious brood "forged from the old rage of the North". The language is really wonderful - at once ancient and mysterious, and modern and crass: "fleart", "lajful little tuss", eyes are "ower glisky", "a kessen moon", a disappointing son is a "gudfernobbut twat". The Slessors are unruly troublemakers, but it's Kathleen who unwittingly upsets the status quo.


There is the rumbling of violence underlying even the quietest of these stories - a knowingness about the extraordinary forces humans are up against, and what humans might do to themselves or others. Death is always "the beautiful indifference" and, one way or another, it stalks the pages.

Unbearable tension permeates She Murdered Mortal He, as a woman who believes that "the worst has already happened" wonders alone down an African beach as darkness falls and the jungle presses in; Vuotjarvi, in which a young couple holiday together at a remote Scandinavian lakeside, trembles agonisingly on that tiny moment of time between everything being all right, and everything being very wrong.

Always, the stories are full of physical description. A lake is "a glinting mass ... ruddy", air is "glutinous", flowers are "like clotted blood". Everything has force and power. Hall is the master of telling you nothing while showing you everything.

Margie Thomson is an Auckland reviewer.