Over August and September, our NCW Book Club choice is Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall. Here are some questions that you might like to consider or discuss with friends, family and fellow members of the Book Club as you make your way through the book. We’d love to hear your thoughts on Sudden Traveller, and any other questions that the book sparks for you.
We hope you’ll join us in reading the book, and that you’ll join the discussion in our Discord community. You can also register for one of our discussion sessions taking place online or in-person at Dragon Hall in Norwich UNESCO City of Literature. Book your free place here >>
Sudden Traveller can be purchased from our friends at The Book Hive and independent bookstores near you – there’s still plenty of time to read along with us, happy reading!
Reading short stories
This is the first time we’ve read a collection of short stories for the NCW Book Club. Do you often read short fiction, or is this an unusual book choice for you? How do you feel about reading a book of short stories? Does it feel similar or different to reading novels or other forms?
There are seven stories in Sudden Traveller, each taking us to a new place, a new perspective, a new genre. For example, ‘M.’ is darkly fantastical and explores themes of violence and revenge, whereas ‘Sudden Traveller’ is a more realist portrait of a family dealing with birth and death. Is there a particular story or stories that you find most enjoyable or resonant? What makes this story different to the others in the collection? And what are the common threads between all the stories in the book? How does your chosen story speak to those shared themes, techniques or concerns?
What do you think about the titles of the stories? Are they indicative of the content, genre and tone of the story itself, or are they surprising, unexpected? Why might Sarah Hall have chosen these titles?
The tauter form of the short story arguably makes endings even more important. What do you think about how Sarah Hall ends these short stories? Are the endings clear and satisfying, or are they more ambiguous? Why might Hall have chosen to end the stories in these ways? Do the endings change your understanding of the stories, and if so, how?
Does Sudden Traveller take the reader on a narrative journey in the same way as a novel might? Or are the stories so different that the book leaves a different impression once you’ve finished reading it? How would you describe the book as a whole to a friend or loved one?
Theme, style, and perspective
Many of the stories in Sudden Traveller make reference to, or are in some way about, the act of telling stories. For example, in ‘Live That You May Live’, a mother tells her sleepless daughter a story; there are multiple characters throughout the collection who revisit or rewrite their own stories. What examples of stories or storytelling can you find within the collection, and what do they tell us about the act of telling stories? What function do stories play within the book, and do you agree or disagree with the powers Sarah Hall ascribes to them?
The opening story, ‘M.’, sees a woman undergo an astonishing transformation. Even though the story is written in the third person, the character’s bodily experience is startlingly rendered. What techniques does Sarah Hall use to create a visceral sense of what it’s like to be in the character’s body, without using a first person point of view? Are there any particular words, patterns, or tricks of perspective that you find particularly effective in bringing us into close contact with this character’s experience?
In ‘The Grotesques’ we follow Dilly as she makes her way home, where her mother is throwing a party. The story looks at the place of the individual within the family and society, and throughout we have a sense of the claustrophobic conditions that Dilly must navigate. What sort of atmosphere does Sarah Hall create in the story, and how does she do so? Is it the same atmosphere throughout, or does it change at different points in the story? Were there any points of surprise in the story, and if so, how does Hall use these to create emotion in the reader?
Our final question contains a spoiler, so you might prefer to read on only once you have finished reading ‘Who Pays?’
In ‘Who Pays?’ Sarah Hall does something curious with time: the characters act to prevent a particular future from happening. What sense of time and place do you have while reading the story? Is there a clear sense of when and where the story is taking place, and of who is telling it? Is there a sense of foresight present throughout the story, and if so, how does Sarah Hall establish it? If not, does the ending of the story come as a surprise, or alter your reading of the story in any way?