Madame Zero by Sarah Hall review – exceptional short storiesThe Booker-shortlisted author interrogates sexuality, motherhood and our animal nature in stories that range from SF dystopias to tales of metamorphosis
Friday 7 July 2017
he opening story of Sarah Hall’s new collection, Madame Zero, won the BBC National Short Story award. It’s called “Mrs Fox”, and in it, a young married woman undergoes a transformation. This may sound soothingly familiar: after all, David Garnett’s story “Lady into Fox” follows the same theme and was made into a film and a ballet; and then there are Colette and her cats, and Manga fox-spirits, and we’ve all heard the term foxy lady.
But Hall’s lady doesn’t turn into any of those anthropomorphic creatures. She isn’t a piquet-playing, clothes-wearing fox, nor a ladylike, balletic fox: she is an actual fox, the light, alert animal, spotlit in Hall’s precise imagery. “At his feet she sits with her tail rearing. Exceptional, winged ears. Eyes like the spectrum of her blended fur … he lifts her. The moderate weight of a mid-sized mammal.” And an animal she remains, for there is no magic to be found to release her in this story; instead, there is the problem of her “black scat” and “on the expensive slate floor, a patch of saliva”; plus the fact that she likes her food live, these days. The indiminishable fact of her animal-ness, and perhaps of our animal-ness, is the nub of the story. It’s shocking.
The other eight pieces in the collection follow similarly wayward, unnerving courses: each beginning in a place where we think we are comfortable, then taking us somewhere other. We may, for example, start reading the psychiatrist’s report story, “Case Study 2”, in the cheerful confidence that we are safe in that delightful trope where we get to gaze at a scene of human degradation from the comfort of the study. But soon we find ourselves watching a child suffer without a clear idea of what would help him; and quickly, like the psychiatrist-speaker herself, we become involved, then overinvolved; then despairing.
Equally, we may feel on familiar ground in what seems to be one of those stories where three friends, one of them afraid of heights, go for a long walk by the coast. But no one gets murdered here; and still less do they overcome their fears and gain new understanding of each other. Instead, the fear wins, the void wins, the sea: “its waves kept coming, white-tipped, the same, the same, as if it were an amnesiac. All seas were a single sea, they all joined.”
Elsewhere we find ourselves in science fiction-style dystopias: but exceptionally terrifying ones, rendered with ruthless clarity. One is a future hospital where all abortion has been forbidden; one is a small British town where the wind has been liberated by global warming and is tearing the buildings to bits; a third a world where a new sort of flu has been invented.
None of these stories offers any redemption, personal or global: instead, like “Mrs Fox”, they say bluntly, insistently, in Hall’s smooth, clear prose, “Look, this darkness is here.” Even if we turn to the enticingly named “Luxury Hour”, which appears at first to be a version of the sort of story where a woman goes swimming and worries about her marriage, we will be wrong-footed. Hall gives us the chlorine and self-doubt in a swimsuit, certainly, but also allows raw desire to rise from the blue depths of the lido, “a long shadow under the surface”. Female sexuality in general in this volume is a force to be reckoned with: “Evie” is a raw, harsh account of sexual appetite liberated by illness, the extent to which we are all meat. The narrator of “Wilderness” intends to move on, soon: “The sex was a bit dull, Joe kept trying not to use condoms, and he was a really bad driver.”
Hall’s take on motherhood, though, is not merely tough, but terrifying. Mrs Fox becomes animal when she becomes pregnant; at the heart of a dystopian story, “Theatre 6”, is a woman being destroyed by child-bearing; while in “Goodnight Nobody” Hall creates an anti-madonna called, by her wan little daughter, Mumm-Ra. Mumm-Ra is a single mother of irregular habits. She works in a mortuary and her daughter wonders if “she might be holding the little dead baby, carefully, combing its hair, buckling a tiny shoe strap, doing some make-up to blush its cheeks”. Rather than approach and find out if her vision is real, her daughter checks out the sandwiches she’s been fetching her. “She lifted the lid and smelled inside the box. Egg.” Female sulphur: the whole story smells of it.
Great short stories are the shape of themselves: image, voice and plot dovetailed to the chosen form. Hall’s stories are vixen-shaped: urban and rural, feral and natural, female and stinky, beautiful and tough. Like Mrs Fox herself, they slide quietly into view and stare at us with their citrine eyes; exceptional, compelling, frightening and authentic.
• Kate Clanchy’s collection The Not-Dead and the Saved is published by Picador..
Madame Zero is published by Faber.