Review by Ben Macnair

Publisher: Faber & Faber    November 2020

ISBN: 978-0062959232   PB

Sarah Hall is one of the United Kingdom’s most celebrated current short story writers. She is a past winner of the BBC National Short Story Award, and a winner of the O Henry prize for short fiction.

Her stories deal with modern life, but also weave elements of fantasy, erotica,  the macabre and the supernatural, with tales told in places ranging from Cumbria to Turkey, and over the seven short stories in Sudden Traveller we see all of these elements come to the forefront.

The opener M is a story of metamorphosis, of a woman transformed, but we are never quite sure into what. There are elements of visceral horror here, as her boyfriend becomes ever more distant from here, work colleagues never have the time of day for her, and her nocturnal wanderings, whether real or dreamed, include the growing of a wings, until a denouement that ramps up the creeping sense of unease.

The Grotesques is a slightly re-written version of Roald Dahl’s The Twits. Dilly is a thirty year old who finds life around her confusing, and people even stranger. Her mother and  siblings all seem to ignore her, which is surprising as it is her birthday. Father Maturi from the church seems the only normal character in a story that takes the worst in human behaviour, and amplifies it to a great degree.

The final two stories Orton and the title story Sudden Traveller are very different, but come from the same dark, slightly surreal place. Sudden Traveller is the story of a woman who finds out she is pregnant as her mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer. It is not an easy feat, to traverse these two extremes in human experience, but a writer of Sarah Hall’s talent and experience  manages it with aplomb.