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Where the Borderlands Begin: The Beautiful Indifference

By Max Dunbar.

the-beautiful-indifference

The Beautiful Indifference, Sarah Hall, Faber 2011

Reading the spread of fascinated broadsheet raves late last year, I kind of had a double take. Short stories don’t normally review, let alone sell. An agent or publisher will say ‘You need to throw this away and write a novel’ or ‘You need to work in some kind of half-arsed linkage between the stories so we can sell it as a novel.’ Arts admins fret about the death of the medium, campaigns, prizes and publishers promote the short form, but they have little impact. The reading public is sometimes accused of a decline in attention span. But it seems that people would rather read an eighty-thousand word novel than an eight thousand word story.

The short form is hard. You need to have the scope of a novel on a canvas a fraction of the size. Your story should be something a reader will turn to from time to time in the same way that people listen to certain songs before they get ready to go out or fall asleep. You’ll need to be economical, and resist the urge of parable or one-act morality play. You need a beginning, middle and end, and a last line that resonates long after the story is over. Sarah Hall can do the short form. Reading The Beautiful Indifference gives you that cold, solid, rare feeling — that this is something special.

We begin in the countryside where Hall was raised. Cumbria has few literary antecedents — although Jenn Ashworth‘s psychotic Annie Fairhurst was born there. The teenage narrator of ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ gets involved with her school’s tough girl Manda Slessor, of a sprawling and intimidating gypsy family. On the first page Manda explains how you beat up two girls at once:

She said all you had to do was keep hold of one, keep hold of one and keep hitting her. No matter what the other was doing to you, you kept that first one pinned, and you kept hammering her, so the free-handed bitch could see you were able to take a flailing and still have her mate at the same time.

This is violence description at its best, clear and hard with none of the voyeurism or self-satisfaction you so often get when authors write about working-class violence. And it is just the beginning. The Slessors are ‘known for prison sentences, and pig-iron money that built them a big house above the town’s industrial estate. They had reputations for fertility at every age, for a seed that always took, and a womb that always produced — thirteen and virgin to those traveller grandmothers suckling at fifty. The town thought it understood their cause’.

The countryside tends to be romanticised by people who don’t have to live there. Talk of rhythms of nature and closeness to the land. The Slessors are feared and loathed by most of the town, spoken of in handed-down Roma myth and prejudice: conversation stops when the family name is mentioned. They are good with soil and animals without being professional farmers, respected without being respectable, steeped in unspoken income and forgotten trades and the secrets of life and death, and redolent in fecundity more than sexuality. Add this to the hierarchies and intensity of feeling that accompanies adolescence, and you’ve got an experience of dark magic. We’re in ‘burnt-farm, red-river, raping territory’ here.

Hall’s narrator is drawn and bound more and more to the Slessors and she does not hold back from the cruelty and horror and what Marx called the idiocy of rural life. And yet, as I said, there is magic — wind on your face and the blood at the back of your throat. ‘But sometimes there’s strange beauty up here,’ she reflects. ‘It’s found in deep-cut places. It’s found in the smoke off the pyres and the pools on the abbatoir floor.’

The reviews centred around Hall’s evocation of the countryside. The Beautiful Indifference is about Home but it’s also about Away. Many stories are set abroad. The story ‘Bees’ is narrated by a woman who has escaped the Cumbria of ‘Butcher’s Perfume’. Hall is one of the few writers to understand the dangers of childbirth. Manda Slosser has an abortion at fifteen and warns her friend that ‘no bloody way was her mam ever to hear of it because her mam would’ve wanted the babby kept.’ For the narrator of ‘Bees’, remembering her marriage and the expectations of family:

‘Something in you stalled. You resisted. You kept taking the pill… You took the tablets and wore an incontinence pad and slapped the paleness out of your face and went to the pens to help with the clipping.’

Domestic emigration can be just as hard and strange as immigration from abroad. ‘Bees’ is full of the eerie contrasts of immigrant experience. London has ‘such a different choreography from that which you are used to, the slow machinery in the black fields, livestock cropping the tufts, your once vernacular scenery.’ And: ‘You aren’t old for this city, where youth stretches out into middle age, where people don’t commit or own mortgages or cars. You felt older in the countryside, comparatively. Old in your hometown, where women the same age had children already sitting exams or getting pregnant themselves.’ She gazes at the mysterious rash of dead bees in her garden and feels herself caught between worlds.

Hall’s perspective is of a woman without a country. Not Home or Away but the borderlands and the hinterlands. There are landscapes and vistas of beauty — but not of indifference.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, January 8th, 2012.