“How much of an agent do you feel in your own sexual life as a woman?” In a Norwich coffee shop, sipping lattes and chatting fiction, Sarah Hall’s question is rhetorical, not probing, for which I am prudishly grateful.
Elsewhere, however, the idea that sex “is this thing that is done to women” places the issue “very much at the front line of feminism” and explains why Hall, one of Britain’s most fêted contemporary authors, returns again and again to the subject.
“Sex is kind of very mundane; it’s a daily occurrence, but it’s also a pressure point in life where things will break or become glorious. So much rides on it. Do women still feel like they have to perform and become something tailored to men?”
These questions lie at the heart of Evie, which rounds off Hall’s new short-story collection, Madame Zero. Our heroine, Evie, is ostensibly a woman with a newfound appetite for sex, but there is a dark twist. Of course there is. Not only is it a short story, but it’s a Sarah Hall short story, a writer who prefers tackling the dramas of human life to the tedium of utopias – “They’re dull.”
Hall, who is 43 and petite, with close-cropped dark hair, weaves words to collect into her stories. Her breeze is “sibilant”, her sun “chromic” and her autumn light “kiltering”. She laughs when I bring up her vast vocabulary. “I’m not like Will Self though, hopefully! He is obviously colossally impressive.”
I stop short of admitting I filled a page of a notebook with words to look up, consoled that even Lionel Shriver, who reviewed Hall’s last collection, The Beautiful Indifference, resorted to a web search for “benthic”. (“Relating to, or occurring at the bottom of a body of water,” wrote Shriver. “Wonderful, and a keeper,” the novelist added.)
Our coffee has been timed to fit Hall’s small child-free window; such is life for a single mother of a two-year-old daughter, she warns me by email before we meet. Hall’s recent single status – her second marriage didn’t work out – makes juggling work and parenthood tough, not least because she is one of this year’s Man Booker Prize judges, an award for which she has been twice nominated. She is 135 books down and counting.
I think the short story is far more respectful of readers and far more challenging and far more adult
“I am fighting for time to work because I don’t want to dump [my daughter] in nursery full-time. For me and her, I don’t think that’s the right decision; I want to be with her. It’s hard, but I’m aware that everything changes fast and she’ll be in school in just over a year.”
Not that Hall, who is originally from Cumbria but moved to Norwich five years ago for the sake of her then-husband’s job, is lecturing others. “That’s a decision different mothers have to make in different situations with their children.”
Being short on time means we will see more short stories from Hall before she tackles a sixth novel, which, for obsessives of the genre, is good news. I am a recent convert, I confess, but have fallen fast and hard. How does she explain their power? “Brevity.”
She likes how short stories unsettle readers, making them think. “It’s a really mature form; it is not like the novel, which often wraps up with a happy ending, pointing everything out in meaningful and certain ways. I think that is quite infantilising of readers. Whereas a short story invites you to have an experience in whatever way you’re having it. I think that is far more respectful of readers and far more challenging and far more adult.”
The stories in Madame Zero are a masterclass in creative writing, coming at the reader from multiple points of view, including the underused second person. Hall, who teaches creative writing, also plays with structures. “I wanted to get myself out of comfort zones; just because you can unsettle people doesn’t mean the same format over and over again should be used.”
Existing fans will relish her acute observations and vivid scenes. Social conventions are torn up after a baby is mauled to death by a dog in Goodnight Nobody. “The rules about who you could talk to, when, and where, had been suspended,” observes the narrator. In Luxury Hour, “light filaments flashed and extinguished in the rocking fluid” of a lido. Emma, the protagonist, watches an old couple swim together, wondering “if they’d evolved towards their symmetry over the years”.
Writing about sex, however, remains a “linguistic challenge”, Hall adds. “It is very hard to describe, because it’s the victim of pornography or poetry, and neither of those things, I think, realistically capture sex.”