BOOK REVIEW: Madame Zero by Sarah Hall


Sarah Hall knows how to unsettle. She knows how to write the eerie and construct the magnetic – prose that pulls you and begs to be read. She knows too, how to disturb, and of the nine stories in Madame Zero, perhaps disturb is the best way to describe them. Each have elements of the wild – the off-kilter and the magical. It should come as no surprise too (to those well versed in Hall’s work). Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Hall is an accomplished writer – Madame Zero then, whilst perhaps not pushing the boundaries of her own style, is nonetheless, exceptional. She strips back the veneer and says this is it no matter how difficult the subject.

The piece that opens Madame Zero, ‘Mrs. Fox’, was the 2013 recipient of the BBC National Short Story award. In reading, it’s clear to see why. Executing magical realism with assured hands, ‘Mrs. Fox’ is a tale of metamorphism. Of change and transition. But this tale is not about sedate animal nature – of soft things, fur and the poetic – it is of reality, the animal itself, eating live creatures and the woman in question becoming a fox in every sense. Wayward and immediate it sets the tone for the collection – gifting perhaps the best overarching outlook on who Hall is as a writer, and how she delivers her prose; occasionally stunted but always worth reading. The style suits every time.

Case Study 2’ is chilling to say the least. A young boy is plucked from a commune in northern England and we uncover his life via the narrator – a psychiatrist. There is no comfort to be found here. No removal from the case, as though we are a doctor reading another note about another relatively unknown patient – instead we are gifted the despair of the psychiatrist and the whole sorry situation. The ending too, packs a rather hefty punch.

Sticking with the medical we also find ‘Theatre 6’. A story where abortion laws have changed, a fetus is more important than the mother, and well, we can only imagine the trauma that follows. It’s Hall once again setting you up in familiar territory then stripping it all away. You think you know what’s happening? – guess again. ‘One in Four’ works on a similar theme – although it is the only story that left me wanting more; fading slightly amongst the rest.

Elsewhere, ‘Later, His Ghost’ is Hall in another dystopian land – a land she creates so effortlessly in her prose that you have no choice but to believe the construction. Here we find a man battling the elements – the wind ravaging everything in sight. He is one of the few survivors, and we follow him on a trek across what remains to find a specific present to gift for Christmas. It is nothing you’d expect.

Wilderness’ presents us with the ever-changing face of the weather, and the outdoors, too. Melting them together along with human relationship as though they walk hand in hand – although I suppose they do. We are in South Africa where a woman has moved to be with her boyfriend. Except nothing is what it seems, and the senses take hold on a rather volatile walk across a viaduct. The prose is perfect for the scenario, and only serves to heighten the tension, building it as though it is Lego to be placed together. Relationships, and the unexpected, take hold in ‘Luxury Hour’ as well. Again, there is a woman, and again motherhood is mentioned, but we come across another element of Hall’s fiction – the erotic. Not so explicit in its content here, although later it will be, she weaves it well. There is sensuality, and she never shies from it.

To fall into cliché for a moment, the best is left till last. Closing out Madame Zero, ‘Goodnight Nobody’ and ‘Evie’ are both delicious slices of fiction. The rich sweet following an already robust main. They are also slices of Hall as a writer – embodying the recurring themes of the collection; wilderness, feral, erotic, sinister, motherhood, female, medical. Disturbing the status quo. In ‘Goodnight Nobody’ we come across Mumm-Ra – a single mother with a grim job in a mortuary and a young daughter who wonders about her world. It’s wonderfully placed with nods to the 80s (Thundercats, A-ha) and is a fully fleshed piece of short fiction. Each sentence hits the right beat, each scene captivating; there’s a dead baby involved too, and it’s delivered as a matter of fact rather than a moment where we should grieve. Yes, it is horrible, but in the fiction that Hall creates, that’s just life. ‘Evie’ takes us into the dark too. Narrated by an ever increasingly confused but intrigued husband, we are privy to a woman giving into her desires – erotic and unashamed. We are joined in his guilt at enjoying the spectacle and then jolted out of it via a clinical ending. It’s raw and unapologetic – as is much of the collection. Hall pulling the rug from under us just as we’ve settled into all engrossing sphere.

Longlisted for the 2018 Edge Hill Short Story Prize and the 2018 Gordon Burn Prize, Madame Zero is a collection of the immediate and the various capacities of terror. A captivating read, Hall delivers the authentic in droves – unsettling the reader at every turn.

Madame Zero is published by Faber & Faber and is available to purchase here.


Sarah Hall


Sarah Hall was born in Cumbria in 1974. She received a BA from Aberystwyth University, Wales, and a MLitt in Creative Writing from St Andrews, Scotland. She is the author of Haweswater, which won the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel, a Society of Authors Betty Trask Award, and a Lakeland Book of the Year prize.

In 2004, her second novel, The Electric Michelangelo, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia region), and the Prix Femina Etranger, and was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

Her third novel, The Carhullan Army, (Daughters of the North, USA) was published in 2007, and won the 2006/07 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the James Tiptree Jr. Award, a Lakeland Book of the Year prize, was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction, and long-listed for the Dublin IMPAC Award. The Carhullan Army was listed as one of The Times 100 Best Books of the Decade.

Her fourth novel, How To Paint A Dead Man, was published in 2009 and was longlisted for the Man Booker prize and won the Portico Prize for Fiction 2010.

The Wolf Border, her fifth novel, was published in 2015, to much critical acclaim, and was shortlisted for The Southbank Sky Arts Awards and the James Tate Memorial Black prize, and won the 2015 Cumbria Life Culture Awards ‘Writer of the Year’ prize.

Her first collection of short stories, titled The Beautiful Indifference, was published by Faber & Faber in November 2011. The Beautiful Indifference won the Portico Prize for Fiction 2012 and the Edge Hill short story prize, it was also short-listed for the Frank O’Connor Prize. Her second collection, Madame Zero, will be published in 2017. The lead story, Mrs Fox, won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2013.

Her work has been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Sarah Hall is an honorary fellow of Aberystwyth University and the University of Cumbria, and a fellow of the Civitella Ranieri Foundation (2007). She is a member of the Royal Society of Literature. She has judged a number of prestigious literary awards and prizes. She is a recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters EM Forster Award. She has tutored for the Faber Academy, The Guardian, the Arvon Foundation, and has taught creative writing in a variety of establishments in the UK and abroad. Sarah currently lives in Norwich, Norfolk.

Reviewed by Emily Harrison

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