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Sarah Hall (1) (1974–)

Author of The Electric Michelangelo

For other authors named Sarah Hall, see the disambiguation page.

19+ Works 3,289 Members 209 Reviews 10 Favorited

About the Author

Image credit: Allen and Unwin Media Centre

Works by Sarah Hall

Associated Works

The Last Man (1826) — Introduction, some editions — 1,647 copies
Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre (2016) — Contributor — 297 copies
Granta 117: Horror (2011) — Contributor — 174 copies
Litmus: Short Stories from Modern Science (2011) — Contributor — 22 copies
Reverse Engineering (2022) — Contributor — 8 copies

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Brilliant debut novel by a writer who is becoming one of my favourites. Mind you, it is not an easy, fast read. Rather it is slow going, savouring the mesmerizing rhythm of Sarah Hall’s sculpted sentences.

From the opening scene of a man, Samuel, who salvages some hay from his abandoned, almost submerged farm in Cumbria, and sings with many hearts, one knows this novel is gonna be thick with layers of sorrow and love. It also makes one wonder which hearts have accompanied the life of this man and his sheep dog. At the end of the novel there is a count down in tragic deaths, that achieve closure for Jack, Janet and her younger brother. All of them are swallowed by the valley that was sealed with a dam, submerging the village of Mardale. But all three of them belong in that valley, taken in by the earth and water. The story of Haweswater is about longing and belonging.

The story is set in the 1930s, around the establishment of Haweswater reservoir providing water for Manchester and the submergence of Mardale, a small village of tenant sheep farmers. The submergence of the village erases a way of life and prematurely ends a harmonious interaction between a harsh landscape and the people who live off it.

Janet is the hard-working, smart daughter of Samuel and Ella Lightburn, who were thrown together by the Great war, when she was a nurse, and he was brought in wounded. Their other child, Isaac is a bit of an oddball – he loves submerging himself in icy cold water, a fish in the body of a human. Sam grows immensely fond of his daughter, who seems stronger than himself and stands her ground like a man. All is well until Jack Leggett arrives, a city man employed by Manchester City Water, extolling a vision of progress that will erase the tenancies and livelihoods of a traditional village for the sake of the greater good. All has been arranged for with the landlord of the valley by the engineers. A dam is to be built, the land lord has agreed to the compensation, what is left is for the tenant farmers to resign to the works and find tenancies elsewhere. Janet is the only one who wants to fight back. And it is she who arranges for an extension of tenancy with the MCW company, while the dam rises and slowly fills. However, Jack is not so bad as he seems. He comes to stay in the village, has his own sentimental attachment to the place (as a young boy he used to take the train and hike through the hills and mountains of the Lake district, to escape a dreary life at home). He is sincerely committed to the fate of these villagers. And opposites attract. Janet starts an affair with this much older man, not in the open, but nocturnally, meeting for animalistic, raw sex out on the hills. Jack is consumed by his love for her, wants to commit wholeheartedly to it, but Janet does not want it to be known. He abides until the village fair in November (a wrestling contest, games), when he openly walks off with her. Now Janet is in cahoots with her stern, pious mom, and the village at large: how could she? Sleeping with the enemy? And Jack is confronted with a cheeky challenge he set a poacher at a brawl in the pub. He wants a golden eagle. By the time the poacher delivers, Jack has grown in love with the place, and is eaten by remorse for this unnecessary death of an eagle. At night he goes out to deliver the corpse at its high nest, and falls… to his death. Janet is pregnant, and can no longer bear life. She mutilates herself, is cared for by her mom. And ultimately, she cannot love the child. She goes out one night to blow herself and the dam left by Jack to smithereens. Some years later, Isaac has become a diver and is given a job at Haweswater dam, to check on a blockage at a submerged intake. He drowns, peacefully, finally at home. All three deaths signify a longing for the place, a circle completed, a re-unification with the land and elements. These tragic deaths reflect a way of life, an attachment that has become unhinged by the progress of modernity.
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alexbolding | 10 other reviews | Feb 7, 2024 |
Possibly the discovery of my reading year (already in mid-January) – magnificent writing. Halfway through the novel I started to slow down – simply did not want it to end, but secretly also wondered how it would end. Sarah could have simply continued writing about Rachel and her men (both hairy and furry) in one endless series – I would have continued reading it, cherishing it, ruminating on it, until the end of sojourn on planet earth. And yet the ending of this novel resulted in some of the most frantic and emotionally spell-bound reading I ever did. I didn’t want it to end, I wanted the pack of wolves to survive, I wanted to know more about Rachel’s trip to Idaho.

So what makes it all so addictive? I suspect the story touches on many themes in my own life. There is also the intergenerational perspective which gives it depth. And then there is the wolf and the public outcry around it (last year over a 100,000 sheep in NL have died as a result of a disease called blue tongue, but the less than two hundred sheep killed by wolves are the one thing people can’t stop talking about). The wolf stands for the wild, for something called nature, in a shape we don’t know anymore. All control freaks kick into action the moment the wolf does not behave like a domesticated dog. It spreads fear. Whereas when I met one in the wild, last year, on the heather fields of my youth, I was just intrigued by this big dog walking so casually across the forest track I was hiking on. Such slick movements. Such command, so sly. Magical. The same applies to Hall’s deft treatment of the wider ramifications of the theme of re-introducing wilderness – borders, identity, fear of the uncontrolled, assertion of power and control (over women, over one’s vices and addictions, over one’s nation, over one’s traumas, over one’s life).

So what is the story? Rachel, a single woman in her late thirties, happily works for a reclusive wilderness centre that monitors the movement of two packs of wolves across Idaho and Canada. Life is simple, spartan and fun with changing crews of volunteers, a hostile environment (hunters and farmers killing and snaring wolves) and a small but committed community of conservationists. Rachel is head hunted for a bold conservationist experiment by an old fashioned Lord in Cumbria, Rachel’s place of birth. The flight and first stay in ten years in Cumbria is paid for by the Lord. Rachel meets her mom for the first time in ages and manages to avoid her estranged half-brother. The job interview confirms her fears – the Lord is do good’er, who wants to create an expansive keep for a couple of wolves, re-introducing the species after an absence of 600 years. It is not half as interesting as the wolf project she is involved in, in Idaho – it is something between a zoo and wilderness. Rachel returns to Idaho, but helps out the Lord by arranging the ferrying of a couple of wolves from a rehab clinic in Rumania. But then her mom dies. Her half-brother’s wife arranges for Rachel’s absence from the funeral (while she is snowed in, in her camp in Idaho). And Rachel gets pregnant as a result of a one-night stand with a local colleague. She sort of doesn’t know how to handle the new situation and decides to return to Cumbria, taking up the Lord’s generous package to become his project manager.

The novel then takes us through all the steps for a successful integration and reproduction of a couple of wolves and their four pups on the Lord’s estate in the lake district. Rachel settles in on a cottage on the estate, she mends her relationship with both her half-brother (who turns out to be a drug addict) and her sister in law, she forms her own team of dedicated conservationists (hiring a South African zen ranger, recruiting the Lord’s daughter as dedicated volunteer), she even manages to start a long lasting affair with the local vet (who turned widow two years before her return to Cumbria). She deftly handles the local protests against the project, and manages both her own and the wolves pregnancies. Her baby son Charles proves pivotal in the recovery process of her half brother. All things settle and stabilize into a pleasant rhythm and then… Disaster strikes – the wolves escape from an open gate.

In a dramatic finale, Hall describes the hunt for the six wolves on the run and the media circus which emerges around it. Only then Rachel perceives that this is actually part of the Lord’s plan – the wolves were meant to escape and flee to the Scottish Highlands in an enforced process of rewilding. Scotland has turned independent and the wolves become an emblem of the new nation – a way to distinguish itself from Great Britain. Rather than catching the pack, the Lord in his helicopter hopes to run them across the border and arrange for a radical environmental policy of the new nation.

Sarah Hall’s writing has a lot in common with Barbara Kingsolver’s, but where Kingsolver is conscribed by American niceties, writing in a polished, politically correct manner, Hall’s writing is much more raw and profound, by being both sexually explicit and by engaging with doubt and trauma in a much more profound, in the face, manner. In movie terms Kingsolver is Disney, and Hall is art movie. Gosh, let’s hope she writes a lot more.
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½
 
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alexbolding | 27 other reviews | Jan 22, 2024 |
Being a feminist dystopia in which a woman flees a London administered by a cruel and misogynistic dictatorship to seek out a colony of resisters out in the tules. This was far too much of a slow burner for me; there is very little (if any) action; rather, the protagonist narrator muses on the collapse of her marriage and her husband's reluctant collaboration with the government. The only other character is a nondescript driver who picks her up as a hitchhiker and who talks a great deal about uninteresting matters.… (more)
½
 
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Big_Bang_Gorilla | 46 other reviews | Sep 24, 2023 |

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