As soon as she is dealing only with dreadful people – cruel undergraduates, a scapegoating, utterly English family who wear each other’s dressing gowns and have no proper boundaries, a terrible clergyman – Hall lets go of the grandeur and stasis that weigh down parts of this collection. The imagery becomes gloriously florid, the observation acute, the dialogue hilarious, the action fluid, and the ending shocking yet wholly inevitable. The story is also, it is true, appalling: a vertiginous vista to the very depths of humanity. It is not comfortable on this edge, and it is easy to understand why Hall has retreated from it a little.
There’s a common theme in the critical praise for Hall’s earlier story collections: ‘sexy’, ‘sensual’, ‘erotic’, ‘sensuous’. It applies to Sudden Traveller too. It is by no means all of her talent but it’s right to single out this aspect, because she does write exceptionally well about sex. However, it is a means rather than an end, and the erotic charge in her best stories is always connected to a subcutaneous darkness and sense of danger. If the pages in Sudden Traveller end up stuck together, it will be with sweat.
Yet the main reason to read Sudden Traveller is simply to bask in Hall’s formidable, righteous language. Short stories are, by nature, works of condensation, but Hall’s sentences themselves have a concentrated power, as if they have been fed through a juicer: for example, ‘The numbing amnesty of alcohol, like a new grace’. And in scenes like one in ‘M’ where the beast makes its final flight, the prose itself seems to take wing: ‘It is here, one valley, in the thousands of the world, that she comes back to. Pulled by cells, eel-blind, brain a small magnetic pit. She can feel each cloud, the breath of the Atlantic, humid in her lungs. And the natal smell lifting, unforgotten – earth and mineral and rain.’
Altered states very much continue to be Hall’s theme in this new book. Her characters are not simply changed – through trauma, experience, or memory – they are turned inside out, physically and psychologically. A baby nestles against his newly bereaved mother, his very existence keeping her alive in turn: “a small machine, an extra organ worn outside the body”. Rarely, too, does an author write words the reader can consistently smell and taste... A mother of a different kind is at the centre of the book’s title story. A woman gives birth to a son, and almost simultaneously receives the diagnosis of her beloved mother’s terminal illness. The ricocheting prospect of death to those who await it allows Hall to consider the deepest questions. Returning home to the north to keep vigil, the woman sees “empty roads shine like dark wounds through the mountains”. Grief seeps into every crevice of this terrain, which is paralysed by heavy flooding. What do we fleetingly remember of those who have gone? What remains? As she mourns, the woman recalls the grandfather she barely knew and looks forward to a future of hitherto unanticipated love. “We are all of us sudden travellers in the world, blind, passing each other, reaching out, missing, sometimes taking hold”, writes Hall, in this, her most personal and beautiful work yet.
Sarah Hall's seven short stories are death-haunted; grief and loss are indelibly etched on to her characters' lives, leaving their melancholy mark. The titular story is powerful and poetic, beautifully describing the welter of emotions a woman feels as she watches her father and brother clear the ground for her mother's grave in water-logged Cumbria: 'We are, all of us, sudden travellers in the world, blind, passing each other, reaching out, missing, sometimes taking hold'.
One of the trickiest puzzles short story writers face is how to get readers to care about their characters ... Against this backdrop, the level of engagement Sarah Hall achieves in some of the stories in her latest collection, Sudden Traveller, is staggering. It may only be 15 pages long, but by the end of “Orton” you feel as if you’ve known the wry protagonist all your life. Similarly, the story that gives the collection its title is only 21 pages long, and yet after only two or three of them you’re fully immersed in the narrator’s world.
At a slim 124 pages, the seven stories in Sudden Traveller merit savouring slowly: several of them reward rereading. Hall’s prose is briny and sensual — unsurprising, perhaps, from an author who describes the process of writing as “physical, tactile almost”. Her lyricism — “the sea is black, bladed, strung with small lights” — reveals the influence of James Salter, but it’s a voice, fierce and unapologetic, uniquely her own. Despite the accolades for her five novels, including two Booker prize nominations, Hall has said that she is most proud of her short stories — “art reduced into something more pure”.
Much lauded, Sarah Hall has scooped up several of Britain’s rapidly proliferating literary awards. Written in a poetic prose and veering into fantasy, the fluent new collection Sudden Traveller (Faber £12.99) shows her sensational trademark themes of sexuality and mortality in various shapeshifting combinations...
Consciously striving for the profound, vividly done and never less than readable, it is all a heady and viable mix of visceral and slick.
Death stalks the pages of Sarah Hall’s latest collection. In seven lyrical, highly imaginative tales, the novelist and former winner of the BBC national short story award explores grief, mortality, female rage and rituals, both ancient and new... As the title suggests, all the characters in Sudden Traveller are journeying towards something both unknowable and yet inevitable: “all those named and nameless fears that finally exhausted and controlled everything, when there was really no control, not in the end.” Slipping seamlessly between fantasy and reality, it is an ambitious, powerful and, at times, deeply unsettling book.
The difficulty with writing about any collection of short stories by Hall is that I have only ordinary, prosaic language to describe them—whereas Hall's writing soars. With elements of science fiction, folktale and myth, these extraordinary stories move from rain-soaked Cumbrian villages to far futher afield. She is the only writer ever to be shortlisted three times for the BBC National Short Story Award, and has also been twice nominated for the Man Booker. My favourite here is the opening "M" in which a lawyer transforms into an avenging angel, buoyed by cold rage.