Sleeping Funny spreads itself thin
By Miranda Hill. Doubleday, 320 pp, hardcover
It’s easy to mistake Hamilton, Ontario’s Miranda Hill for a CanLit veteran, given the buzz around her new story collection—mostly to do with her accolades (she won last year’s $10,000 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize) and home life (her husband is The Book of Negroes author Lawrence Hill). But we should remember that Sleeping Funny is actually a debut, that only two of its nine stories were previously published in literary journals, and that the Journey Prize is awarded to “emerging and developing” writers. That explains, at least partially, why the book is so timid and groggy. Then again, the story that netted Hill the lucrative prize, “Petitions to St. Chronic”, is also the very worst one in the batch. I don’t know what to think anymore.
One of the book’s most nagging habits is its fixation on a clichéd, overblown tension between suburban and rural life. The uptight career women of “The Variance” see their entire world-views thrown into doubt when one vaguely hippie family moves in down the block and has the nerve—can you imagine!—to walk at a leisurely pace on the sidewalk and genuinely enjoy one another’s company. This thin premise is stretched even thinner over the course of 62 pages.
Similar problems mar “6:19”, as a repressed white-collar commuter becomes unaccountably attracted to a woman he sees gardening through his subway window. Her arms, we’re told, “have an honest tan acquired through outdoor work, not planning”. Oh, brother. At least there’s no mention of the virtuous dirt under her fingernails, or the noble sweat on her heroically leathery brow.
The other running concern in Sleeping Funny is the whiff of supernaturalism, such as the sex-ed class that magically springs to life in “Apple”, or the winged corpses in the excruciatingly titled “Rise: A Requiem (with parts for voice and wing)”. But these twists are never fully grounded or integrated. Instead, they’re deployed like smoke bombs, useful whenever Hill’s otherwise mild-mannered realism gets stuck and she needs to make a quick escape.
Hill wrote approximately half of this book while a master’s student at UBC, working under the gleefully experimental Zsuzsi Gartner. Hopefully, that connection will be more apparent next time around; as it stands, Hill could really benefit from a bad influence or two.
Miranda Hill is slated to appear at two Vancouver Writers Fest events, both taking place at the Improv Centre: the publisher Doubleday’s 75th anniversary party on October 17, and the five-author panel titled Coupled and Uncoupled on October 21.