The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall, This Isn't the Sort of Thing by Jon McGregor and Diving Belles by Lucy Wood review

by Siobhan Harvey / 30 March, 2012
Man Booker Prize-shortlisted writer Sarah Hall’s latest, THE BEAUTIFUL INDIFFERENCE (Faber & Faber, $36.99), is stunning.

Featuring seven long stories, the book is a testament to its author’s ability to draw the extraordinary and ominous from the everyday. Standouts include the title story and “Butcher’s Perfume”. In the latter, a high-school friendship with tough-nut thrill-seeker Manda Slessor pulls the motherless narrator into the unruly world of her new pal’s family, whose gypsy heritage sits uneasily alongside their gentrifi cation.

“The Beautiful Indifference” upturns the conventional love story by highlighting the discordant social mores and emotions that arise when a 30-something writer conducts an intense relationship with a young physician who’s moonlighting on a psych iatric ward. Anchored to Cumbria and amplified by its onomatopoeic inflection, this book is beautiful, definitely, but offers the sort of evocative writing you never feel indifferent about.

Caribbean-born English author Jon McGregor’s story collection THIS ISN’T THE SORT OF THING THAT HAPPENS TO SOMEONE LIKE YOU (Bloomsbury, $36.99) epitomises his inventiveness and craft. Each tale puts under the microscope a relationship in which a wrong turn is taken, secrets abound and dysfunctions prevail. “In Winter the Sky” correlates a poet’s work, a disinterred body and a couple of high-school sweethearts’ journey to becoming In short order farming entrepreneurs. In “Keeping Watch over the Sheep”, an estranged father attempts to watch his daughter’s first Nativity. In “Years of This, Now”, a woman takes stock after her husband’s stroke. This is fiction as a poetic medium with a narrative structure allied to lyrical prose. Set in villages across Lincolnshire, it is as much homage to landscape as to those who inhabit it. Enjoy, then devour McGregor’s elegiac first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things.

Cornwall and its folklore frame Lucy Wood’s inconsistent first story collection, DIVING BELLES (Bloomsbury, $36.99). There’s a commendable range of subject matter here, including spirituality, bereavement, break-ups, capitalism and necromancy. Moreover, the balance between ancient lore and modern living is often well-worked, particularly in stories like “Blue Moon”, where an experienced care assistant takes lucrative employment in a new establishment housing an odd assortment of catfish-owning, young-looking residents.

Ditto the title story, in which widowed Iris employs the submersible services of androgynous sea captain Demelza to put to rest the loss of her husband. Yet, touted as Angela Carter’s pretender, Wood writes in a way that never equals the pizzazz and experimentation of her magic-realist subtext or the high standards set by the legendary Carter. Consequently, a number of offerings plod, including “Of Mothers and Little People”, in which divorce gets a mystical makeover. Uneven.

Siobhan Harvey is a writer whose first poetry collection, Lost Relatives, was released last year.
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