I was discussing the idea of my reading shorter fiction over the summer with a colleague recently when they asked ‘but what can make a short story better than a novel?’ Now of course any answer to any bookish question is going to be subjective to every reader, I was flummoxed though. I couldn’t give a definite answer. Then I happened to read Mrs Fox, after rediscovering an old interview I did with Sarah Hall and was going through her bibliography and getting a copy almost immediately as it sounded like another foxy tale I had read, and was vividly reminded of why (in the right hands) it is sometimes the shorter a book is the more intense the experience.
Mr Fox is in love with his wife, as any husband should be. However love sometimes seems to almost go to the level of obsession as he ponders the woman who is his and yet remains somewhat distance and unattainable because there is an air of mystery and the unknown about her no matter how intimate they are. Their life is a contained, comfortable and routine one, though like all the best stories we know that a change is coming, quite literally, to the Fox household and routine will soon be a thing of the past.
He wears nothing to sleep in; neither does his wife, but she has showered, her hair is damp, darkened to wheat. Her skin is incredibly soft; there is no corrugation on her rump. Her pubic hair is harsh when it dries; it crackles against his palm, contrasts strangely with what’s inside. A mystery he wants to solve every night. There are positions they favour, that feel and make them appear unusual to each other. The trick is to remain slightly detached. The trick is to be able to bite, to speak in a voice not your own. Afterwards, she goes to the bathroom, attends to herself, and comes back to bed. His sleep is blissful, dreamless.
Sarah Hall has a wonderful way of describing all this. There is the almost erotic compulsion as Mr Fox thinks about his wife, along with a feeling of something being rather out of place from the start as if she shouldn’t really be with him and if not why not? There is a matter of fact tone, and I don’t mean monotone, throughout the tale which makes it seem all the more real even though something magical and unusual is around the corner. There is also a real charge to the writing too, it’s very earthy and raw which I really liked.
There is of course a transformation coming which no matter how inevitable it seems as you read on (and you can probably guess what this might be) which is deftly crafted by Sarah Hall. For a start you don’t want the lovely Mr Fox having his life broken into pieces, you empathise with him and how much he loves his wife. Yet at the same time without knowing Mrs Fox, who remains a real enigma throughout, you feel life and nature should take their course. When it does it is wonderfully creepy and rather sinister, which naturally I liked rather a lot.
She turns her head and smiles. Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been recarved. Her lips are thin and her nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened and her brows are drawn together, an expression he has never seen, a look that is almost craven. A trick of kiltering light on this English autumn morning. The deep cast of shadows from the canopy. He blinks. She turns to face the forest again.
As well as being unnerving I found the book incredibly moving. To watch as Mr Fox’s idyllic (to him, you are never sure of Mrs Fox’s view on things really) suburban household is torn apart as nature takes over and his world destroyed it heart breaking. Obsession and luck turning to grief and despair especially when he sees his wife again (no spoilers, but it is very moving) is pitch perfect, Hall playing with all our experiences of loss and subtly ramming it home – if that is possible.
It also brings up the age old, and always fascinating, question of how well we know our partners. What secrets do they have to hide? Can we ever really know someone or what they are thinking? Can we get too comfortable with our lives and too routine, taking everything for granted. It also seemed to particularly bring up the question of who we end up with and if we can ever really believe someone wants to spend the rest of their life with us? Are we worthy? Much to ponder indeed.
Mrs Fox of course reminded me of the equally marvellous Lady Into Fox by David Garnett which it is loosely based on. Now Lady into Fox is short but Mrs Fox is even shorter and I think that makes the book all the more intense as you read on. I am not saying that this is a ‘better’ version, because I would recommend you read both frankly, but there is something much less twee in Hall’s description which sits it all the more in reality whilst of course still being very magical and other.
I loved Mrs Fox. It has reminded me how much I enjoy a really well written (it should be noted that this won the BBC National Short Story Award 2013, I can see why) and crafted short story, the power and the intensity they have. It has also reminded me how much I loved Sarah Hall’s writing when I read her short story collection The Beautiful Indifference which for some reason I never reviewed, giving me the perfect opportunity to go back and re-read them all again. So all in all highly recommended! I believe some bookshops still have it in stock as a (very) small standalone book, if not I believe it is also available on the devil’s device for a small sum, which would be well spent.
Which short stories would you recommend because they pack as good, if not better, a punch as novels? Any particular authors who are stand out for shorter fiction? Which Sarah Hall novel should I give a whirl after I have re-read The Beautiful Indifference – which incidentally you can hear Sarah talking to me about here. All recommendations and thoughts welcome as always…