Review: Sleeping Funny: Stories, by Miranda Hill

>>Published: September 2012

>>Finally got around to it: October 2012

We turn the pages back. Carlos says Gibson is pale so that the light can shine through him. Micheline says he needs a little more sun. She will take him to Florida, she says, when he is well enough to stand the drive. To me, he looks as vulnerable as those girls in high school whose hips jutted up against the pocket rivets of their jeans. The ones everyone always tiptoed around: a fracture waiting to happen. The world pressed in closer on those among us who were cushioned by flesh, as if that offered sufficient protection. Despite the skin and the veins, Gibson has hands that look big and capable. They look like hands that could have hung on. But there are things you can’t know from looking.

The first time my husband hit me, we were in the bathroom, so it was hard to tell whether the darker bruise was from Cy’s hand or from the edge of the sink I hit going down. I felt across the floor to see if I would find blood, but the tiles were dry. When I pulled myself up, I held onto the vanity and stood in front of the mirror as long as I could. The red was spreading under my skin, my cheek, and my forehead was swelling. It looked like it should hurt. I couldn’t even remember Cy’s fist on me. It was as if something had pushed its way out from the inside like a latent cancer. “This is how I look as a beaten woman,” I said. I tried it on like a uniform, and felt it settle on me like something I was always meant to wear.

***

An interesting thing happened to me while reading Miranda Hill’s debut collection, Sleeping Funny. I started to envision a small town in the middle of nowhere, like something out of a Tim Burton film: prim and precise, every hedge cut to the same height with the same car parked in the same driveway of every cardboard cutout house. The town changed as the years passed—from Gothic nineteenth century underpinnings, to post-World War II a flag-in-every-shop patriotism, to more modern day aesthetic flavours—yet remained forever apart, an island unto itself, carved from the world. The nine stories collected in this book are tinged with slightly off-colour characters—exaggerations, islands of their own neither here nor there, but relatable all the same.

In “The Variance”, an infection is moving through Glenmount Crescent, a Pleasantville stand-in of hyphenated this-meets-that families, white picket fences, and crab apples littering lawns and sidewalks. Michal, the matriarch of the recently moved-in Revivo-Smitherman family, is an albatross—an “other” who represents what Imogene and Adelaide and other mothers in the neighbourhood fear most: change.

“Apple” is about sex. Not just sex, but the worst sex a teenager can imagine: parental sex. Possibly the most magical story of the collection, the titular Apple is forced to bear witness to unending images of her parents and the parents of classmates engaged in intercourse. Going deeper (pun not intended), “Apple” is about the teenage imagination regarding sex, and beyond sex, the idea of procreation—romanticizing and planning the moment, not wishing one’s existence and self worth to be the result of a mere act of lust but of careful, calculated planning.

“Petitions to St. Chronic” is one of the strongest stories in this collection—it also happens to be the story that won Hill the Journey Prize. It’s a beautiful, lyrical piece mapping the parallels between severe depression and suicide, and acquiescence and spousal abuse: exploring the scars that are not so readily seen—not before it’s too late.

Following such a strong tale is unfortunately one of the weakest of the lot: “6:19”. A simple tale of a government employee tired of his hum drum routine, fantasizing about the seemingly idyllic existence of a woman who is not his wife tending a garden that is not his own as he watches from the window of his stopped train. On one hand, the main character is emotionally uninteresting—but on the other hand, such emotional reticence could be argued as a deliberate tactic, to further illustrate his inaction and how it has helped settle him into a life he no longer desires. Whatever the intent, I felt kept at arm’s length throughout this entry.

“Because of Geraldine” is a story of regrets, of second-bests in love and settling for a life that offers a great deal—a family, kids and a wife and love and happiness—but is missing that small taste of something… special. Because, “Maybe only those things that were left behind felt sad. Maybe our father would feel it too. And I tried to imagine what it would be like to be his second biggest regret.”

“Precious” is far and away the strongest of the collected stories. Both moving and unnerving, it depicts in much the same way as the aforementioned “Petitions to St. Chronic” scars that are nigh impossible to see. It is about expectations versus reality: the all-too common crime of parents, playing favourites with their children, harbouring unfair expectations on their offspring before they can even begin to realize their potential. The narrative alludes to the first-born, Alex, as being deficient in some way—disappointment accentuated when the impossibly perfect Kristi-Anne is brought into his world and he is pushed into the shadows, deliberately forgotten by his parents to disastrous results. The story’s final moments and the unexpected tragedy spurned from parental neglect offer the most emotionally accomplished beats the book has to offer.

In “Digging For Thomas”, a mother looks after her son following the war-time death of her husband in a small community where everyone knows everyone, and the death of a single person casts ripples from one end of the town to the other. Contrasting with “Precious” and “Petitions to St. Chronic”, the mother in “Digging For Thomas” is scarred, visibly, for all to see, though there is not a cut anywhere on her. The tragedy she’s endured is known and understood by all, though commentary—and eye contact—is kept at a minimum, as if death were an indecency better left unspoken.

“Rise: A Requiem” is the most unconventional, and also the most ineffective story in the collection. Written as the 1889 testimony of Enoch Carlisle, former Reverend of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, the story details horrors done in the name of medicine that might be construed as villainy, or as a miracle without explanation. Either way, the theme presented is a foreboding one: the apocalypse is a mortal life, and the greater of evils belongs to men.

“Sleeping Funny” follows a Lorelei and Rory Gilmore-like mother-daughter pair: the still-clinging-to-the-past Clea, and her self-sustaining child, Minnie, who is clearly Clea’s emotional rock. Leaving a never-ending string of dead fish in her wake, Clea has allowed her life to lapse into a coma following the death of her father. When elements of her past force her to examine mistakes and choices made, Clea learns that though she has not necessarily moved on from her past, her past has moved on from her, and it’s up to her whether or not she wants to catch up with it and start living her life again.

Hill’s writing is, to use one of my favourite words, layered. Her imagery is strong throughout this collection; every sentence has a purpose, a reason for existing. Everything about the stories presented in Sleeping Funny feels carefully constructed, as if little was left to chance. The consequence of that, whether intentional or not, is the previously mentioned island effect: the feeling that these stories exist in a highly manicured world of visual cues and delicate, premeditated aesthetic choices. Keep in mind this is by no means a complaint. Sleeping Funny is one of the strongest short story collections I’ve read this year. Hill’s choices, however careful they may or may not have been, go a fair distance in creating the feeling of a historical artefact—a village tome united by its scars, by its resistance to change, throughout time. Even “6:19” and “Rise: A Requiem”, though not the strongest narratives in the collection, are engaging, textured examinations of individuals in strange, potentially unexplainable circumstances. However, it is on the strength of “The Variance”, “Petitions to St. Chronic”, “Precious”, and “Sleeping Funny” that this collection receives my utmost recommendation.

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