Seven stories populate award-winning English novelist (How to Paint a Dead Man, 2009, etc.) Hall’s first collection.
“Butcher’s Perfume” is set up against the Scottish border, “burnt farm, red-river, raping territory,” where motherless Kathleen falls in with the Slessors, a prosperous family with a “gipsy” mother. Intrigued by petite and blue-eyed, hard-bitten and combative Manda, Kathleen soon needs help from a brother, Aaron, who rights a wrong with a brutal fierceness. In the title story, an older-woman–younger-man couple meet for a tryst. The man is a doctor-in-training, and there are intimations the woman is mortally ill. Next comes “Bees,” rendered in second person. A woman, disgraced by her husband’s illegitimate child, leaves her beloved northland's “great heathered fells” to seek refuge with a London friend, lingering there unemployed, unemployable, contemplating a garden filled with dead bees. In “The Agency,” a comfortable life, thriving children and a professorial husband are risked by a woman after a sophisticated friend introduces her to an elegant service willing to provide a companion “to meet all possible needs.” Lovers take a vacation to an isolated African resort in “She Murdered the Mortal He.” There is a fracture in the relationship, and frustrated, she walks to a nearby village, glimpsing “in a clean bolt of panic,” a white shape trailing her. It is but a dog, a beast that later returns with a bloodied muzzle. Most affecting is “The Nightlong River,” a story of north country girls shortly after the Great War. The land has been seized by winter so cold as to be an “inverse Eden.” Magda is ill. Dolly attempts to help, learning in the end the dead leave us in “the solid world upon which we find ourselves, and in which we reign.” The collection concludes with “Vuotjärvi.” A couple vacation at a remote Finnish lake, and on an idyllic summer outing, the man attempts to swim to an island and disappears.
Visual and vibrant. Literary and lyrical.