The nine short stories in Sarah Hall’s latest collection, Madame Zero, cover what seems to be an entire spectrum of literary genres, from tales rooted in classic dystopia and science fiction to more traditional snapshots of everyday life. Hall connects each story with overarching themes of transformation and identity. In many of the stories, such as the lauded ‘Mrs. Fox’ – which won the 2013 BBC National Short Story Award – transformations are triggered when everyday people and plots come into close contact with the wild and the unimaginable. Indeed, many of Hall’s characters grapple with mundane human exteriors and the secret wildness hidden deep inside them which constantly threatens to emerge. Most of these characters are women, through whom readers are given an authentic glimpse into concepts of womanhood and subversion of traditional ideas of tame or maternal femininity. In ‘Mrs. Fox’, for example, archetypal motherhood is directly contrasted with something feral and animalistic, the character’s pregnancy ultimately setting off the events which occupy the short story.
Hall’s prose is evocative and visceral, and at times genuinely unsettling. It deals unflinchingly with aspects of womanhood that will profoundly resonate with readers. With dialogue unpunctuated by quotation marks and detailed descriptions of the characters’ surroundings, the writing is almost Cormac McCarthy-esque in style. Its landscapes are rich and fully-formed, whether it be subterranean woodland or the South African mountains that terrify Becca, the main character in ‘Wilderness’. Hall’s talent really shines in this collection. Despite the brevity of her chosen form, I still found myself haunted by her words long after I had closed the book.