Review: Mad Hope, by Heather Birrell

>>Published: April 2012

But maybe, just maybe, Geraldine thought, there was something she could take away from all this. A piece of Jerome to put in her pocket. She wanted to find a way to tell him this, but they were locked into something now; she had to carry on. ‘But you’ll never succeed in pleasing everybody,’ she said.

‘Nah, maybe not.’ Jerome made his hand into a neat pistol and shot twice, up towards the heavens. Bam, bam.

Maybe aiming at God, maybe saluting Him.

‘But I got mad hope,’ Jerome said. ‘Mad hope.’

***

Heather Birrell’s second collection of short fiction (following 2004’s I Know You Are But What Am I?) links eleven stories through the common themes of tragedy, loss, and expectations. Beyond that, however, the stories are also linked, to a certain degree, by narrative conceits of siblings, death (usually of a parent), and children—having children, struggling to conceive, and the loss of a child, either through mistakes they’ve made (as in “Dominoes”), or something unavoidable, like a miscarriage (“No One Else Really Wants to Listen”).

Mad Hope is divided into three sections, each with its own feel. In the first part, the stories deal primarily with the communication (or perception of communication) between adults and children. The second part is unique amongst the three, in that the stories contained within this part deal exclusively with one cast of characters spread across two families, switching perspective and style in each story. Part two is more exploratory, using the linked narratives to plum the depths of anguish felt by these families in the aftermaths of two deaths. Part three is about loss—dealing with it, accepting it, and possibly even atoning for it or similar regrets from one’s past.

The second part, comprised of the stories “Dominoes,” “Bye Bye Flangle Nuts,” and “Dingbat,” is the strongest of the three, yet it feels unfortunately out of place in amongst the other, not-so intimately connected narratives. Feeling less like they are part of a collection and more as if they were meant to be part of a stand-alone novel or novella, the stories in part two distract, perhaps intentionally, by pulling in the reader with a greater and unexpected level of depth before somewhat unceremoniously abandoning the accomplished intimacy for the less emotionally invested third part.

Apart from that minor structural quibble, the stories themselves sing. Birrell is gifted with tight sense for phonetic rhythm, which she uses to great tonal effect throughout the book. From the final story of the collection, “Impossible to Die in Your Dreams:”

There’s no contesting the wisdom of children. Now, there she is, all dolled up to the nines and tens, ready to wed. And in such a place! I’m not one for religion, but still, a brewery tugs at the old constraints of credulity. And her sister Samantha, always the ornery one, scowling in the corner. Went and got herself a P-H-D and traipsed around the world. Places herself above weddings and other normal human interactions. Thinks tripping through a rice paddy in Vietnam lends her some smarts inaccessible to the likes of me and Bea.

Ignoring the section breaks and looking to the stories as individual properties, it’s natural that some would be stronger than others. In particular, “BriannaSusannaAlana,” “Geraldine and Jerome,” “Dingbat,” and “Frogs” are the strongest, most original entries in this collection, while the final two stories, “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning” and the aforementioned “Impossible to Die in Your Dreams” struggle to find their emotional beats.

Birrell’s characters are not stereotypes or archetypal extremes. The character of Thomas in “My Friend Taisie,” for example, is very human, very real as he struggles to find his footing with the adopted Anton, whose parents had recently died. Similarly, Maddie, who is at the centre of the second part’s arc, is brilliantly deadpan, but not so much as to be off-putting or unsympathetic. The ability to write realistic and compelling characters, without feeling forced to straddle needlessly absurd or melodramatic line, gives a greater weight to these stories than their occasionally repetitive subject matter demands.

Mad Hope is an exhibition of control. Birrell carefully weaves through the central themes of the book, using their commonality as a springboard rather than an anchor. More often than not, she succeeds, beautifully.

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