In her second short story collection, Madame Zero, Sarah Hall has created something wholly original. The nine stories span a number of genres, but all combine the surreal and the quotidian to haunting effect. This is a collection that’s easy to devour, but it will linger long after the reader finishes the final tale.
If there’s a central theme to the collection, it is women who vacillate between intimacy and alienation. “Luxury Hour” finds a new mother encountering a former lover during a few spare hours away from her baby, a time her husband thinks is spent in selfish indulgence despite his wife’s internal conflicts. In “Theatre 6,” a medical team in a near-future dystopia risk their careers—not for the first time—to perform an abortion. “Goodnight Nobody” is a day-in-the-life of a well behaved girl who flies under the radar of her mother and grandmother, only to find that their trust in her can verge on carelessness as they let her take liberties that make her uncomfortable.
Hall’s stories are wildly disparate in content, but united by their gravitation to darkness. In some, darkness is held just barely at arm’s length; the opening “Mrs Fox”, in which a woman turns into a fox and leaves her husband for a life in the wild, hinges on a man’s willingness to let a woman go free rather than hold her captive. The story develops into a moving take on a man’s contented place in an unorthodox relationship, the sense of peril and potential for harm evaporating into a bucolic and surreal “new normal.”
Less so with the closing story, “Evie,” in which another wife goes wild. But rather than turning into a fox, she wants to engage in more and more unexpected sexual acts with her husband and eventually their mutual close friend. After a seizure, she learns that a mass on her brain is causing her personality and impulses to change, and the lines of consent become blurred as she struggles to identify her own desires and those brought on by her illness. The transition from a couple exploring their sexuality to a woman unable to feel safe doing so is jarring.
Hall’s use of language is masterful, eliciting deep emotions with subtle turns and illusionary references. Her stories create worlds—whether vast dystopias or a family’s living room—that feel real but never overly polished. In Madame Zero’s nine brief stories, Hall covers a staggering amount of ground, crafting compelling narratives that are expansive despite their brevity. Sensual and chilling by turns, this collection is electric.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.