A page into the third story of Madame Zero, I started to experience deja vu. The setting of Theatre 6 is a hospital in London; the point of view is second person, and the "you" being addressed is Dr Rosinski, an anaesthetist. It begins with the doctor being woken by a beeper and phoning down to A&E. A dangerously ill pregnant woman has been admitted, suffering from septicaemia. "The mother is very unwell, probably started miscarrying a week ago," the gynae registrar says. "She was told by her GP to wait it out, you know." Dr Rosinski goes down to prepare for surgery, pausing by the chapel on the way. Above the door, a sign reads: Life Is Sacred.
As it turns out, Theatre 6 was first broadcast on Radio 4 in 2013 as part of a series in honour of Betty Friedan. In a blog about the story for the BBC website, Sarah Hall explained that it came about as a response to the death of Savita Halappanavar.
“Fiction allows authors such godly decisions within the worlds they create,” she wrote. “I wish Savita Halappanavar had been more fortunate, but wishing cannot make it so. Nor can speculation about the types of system that allowed her death. Perhaps my story is a protest story; almost certainly it is.”
Read in an Irish context, its protestations are somewhat faint. It takes place – although this isn’t immediately apparent – in a near-future in which controversial new government legislation has been introduced. The anaesthetist’s gender is never specified, and with similar ambiguity, Dr Rosinski never takes a moral position on the situation at hand, other than to suppress a generalised discomfort. The reader is held at a distance, in the hope that – according to Hall – we “might be sympathetic but also challenged; charged, at least, to think”.
An ambitious writer
Hall is author of four novels, of which 2015's The Wolf Border is most recent and 2004's The Electric Michelangelo perhaps best-known; it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Madame Zero is Hall's second short-story collection, following 2011's The Beautiful Indifference. She is an ambitious writer, gliding between aeons, drawn to exotic locations. Theatre 6 is one of three stories with a dystopian twist. The backdrop to One in Four is a global flu pandemic; the story takes the form of a letter from a disgraced pharmaceutical scientist to his estranged wife. In Later His Ghost, a young man and a pregnant woman shelter in a "longbarn" from a wind-ravaged world.
And yet, Hall's imagination never strays too far from home, and these stories reflect a deep attachment to the rural England of her roots and a distinct concern for the incremental destruction of its wild spaces. Case Study 2: Recognition of the Self follows the fate of an eight-year-old boy "discovered wandering the upland moors" – a Mowgli for modern times. Luxury Hour is set alongside a lido in London, but the protagonist is originally from Devon and yearns for "the fragrance of peat and gorse, horses with torn manes, the lack of people". Walking home through a meadow which has been rejuvenated from wasteland by a local campaign, she wonders: "What did people do without access to such places, places less governed . . . "
As it happens, her question has already been obliquely answered by the collection's opening story. Mrs Fox is told from the point of view of a husband who lives, uneventfully, with his rather mysterious wife in a house of "arable" colours: "brassica, taupe, flax", located "in the lesser countryside – what was once heath". Sophia "dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth", until one morning, while walking together through a forested area on the edge of town, she suddenly sets off at a sprint through the trunks and ferns and thicket, and keeps sprinting until she has shrunk and streamlined and shapeshifted into a fox – as if the wildness inside her could no longer restrain itself. It's a chic piece of writing as well as a persuasive allegory.
The final story in Madame Zero echoes the first. Again we are locked in a husband's perspective – he is forced to observe as his wife, formerly "the type who apologised over any minor or innocuous discourtesy", inexplicably transforms into a chocoholic sex maniac. Evie is a psychological drama about marriage and sex and longing – this is the murky, quixotic territory at which Hall excels.
- Sara Baume is the author of Spill Simmer Falter Wither and A Line Made by Walking