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Sarah Hall: Sudden Traveller review - lyrical and luminous | reviews, news & interviews

Sarah Hall: Sudden Traveller review - lyrical and luminous

Sarah Hall: Sudden Traveller review - lyrical and luminous

Atmospheres of knowledge, nostalgia and experience

Blind passings given sharp edgesPhoto of Sarah Hall © Richard Thwaites

Movement, flight, searching, the quest for a destination: as its title might suggest, Sarah Hall’s latest story collection Sudden Traveller is preoccupied with journeys of one kind or another. From the Cumbrian moors to a city in the near East, a time-bound version of Cambridge to a Turkish forest and the anonymous urban sprawl, the territory of these tales spans a wide, varied geography. Yet where onward momentum is often suggestive of adventure or the quest for positive self-realisation, Hall’s characters stand at an awkward angle to travel’s hopeful restlessness. These are dislocated journeys that have either already happened, are only dreamed, or end somewhere dark. Not necessarily chosen but propulsive, bewildered, haphazard, their full meaning kept opaque to their undertaker: “We are, all of us, sudden travellers in the world, blind, passing each other, reaching out, missing, sometimes taking hold.”

Hall’s first story begins on “a warm, damp, starless night in the city”, in “the hour between prayers”. A suspensive stillness: “Darkness moves like an ocean above the roofs and streetlights” and “[t]he windows of houses stand open, venting air, exhaust and the fume of falling leaves”. Travel takes us forward, but Hall disturbs our sense of direction. For several pages she tracks “the intransitive” torpor of nighttime pain with a close-textured realism, “the whole room seem[ing] alive, made of soft moving skin”. Then the story snaps into the sharp movements of attack: wings and violence, anger of mythic intensities. ‘M’ – the story’s single-letter name a gesture, perhaps, to the idea of a code word for that which we dare not give a name (monster, medusa, murderer?) – shows a woman transformed into a fantastical winged creature, pursuing and slaying men who have been violent towards women and girls. Replacing helplessness with violent activity, she “preens the masses of their disease”.

Sudden Traveller by Sarah HallElsewhere in the collection, death is likewise more often near than distant. Hall knowingly rewrites the journey as a metaphor for the onward momentum of life that might suddenly stop. In the book’s title story – last year’s winner of the BBC National Short Story Award – a mother comes to terms with the simultaneous birth of her son and death of her own mother. Bringing vital life to ambivalent feeling, Hall shapes her protagonist via the knowing intimacy of the second-person pronoun. She is watched reflecting on the conflicts and inertia of her grief: “Caught between two extreme experiences … you felt some kind of internal paralysis”. Stagnancy: “suspension from the world”. “Nothing is unchanging”, but this story watches the clock stop.

Hall’s other stories show death weaponised but also embraced. ‘The Grotesques’, climbs through intensities of social suffocation and ends with a drowned body. The folkloric story ‘Who pays?’ unfolds a plot to dispose of a man within the Well of Souls, safeguarding the women’s futures. In ‘Orton’, an elderly woman confronts “[l]umpy cloud. Emptiness.” New technology has enabled the continued beating of her failing heart, but she has chosen to travel to her final resting place, making a call to a phone line that confirms an end to her “borrowed days”.

Across all these stories, Hall’s prose is characteristically lyrical and luminous, carefully capturing the lucidity of the natural world. Yet the collection has its unevenness. Sometimes, the form feels almost too neatly managed, undoing the capacity of the short story to linger and disturb. Her narrative tendency towards building character via description and reminiscence creates comprehensive portraits that can leave too many questions answered, and often slows the pacing.

Still, the collection magnetises for the grace of its observation. It builds compelling atmospheres of knowledge, nostalgia and experience, reflecting on our place in the bewildered patterning of time and roads. In my favourite story of the collection – the shortest and the last – a girl comes to the knowledge that “moving was her spirit”.

@jess_payn

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