Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Sleeping Funny


Though it may be too obvious to use the word dreamlike when describing a book entitled Sleeping Funny, Hamilton-based Miranda Hill’s debut collection of short stories seems to warrant it. Indeed, even those few stories set in what appear to be a more grounded realism have a touch of the surreal about them. Take the opening novella-length story, “The Variance,” set within the familiar tableaux of upscale suburbanites, which opens with a tongue-in-cheek account of a common childhood infestation: “The lice moved through the neighbourhood with the precision of a military campaign. An infrared map of Glenmount Crescent would have shown a pattern so complete that even the houses that were spared seemed part of the strategy.” Lice, however, soon becomes a secondary concern as attention shifts to the new family on the block and an altogether new campaign, one intent on maintaining the status quo of the street, unfolds. At first glance it appears to be another suburban send-up, populated with requisite harried mothers who juggle parenthood and career within the plush confines of a gentrified neighbourhood. Yet as the story progresses there are moments when characters experience a sort of dreamlike wonder and as allegiances shift and fall away, the neighbourhood itself physically changes “so that it would seem that there was an identical street running parallel to the crescent.”


While most stories in Sleeping Funny share a sense of a world slightly off-kilter, all nine stories within this volume are pleasingly distinct, veering from historical (“Rise: A Requiem”; “Digging for Thomas”) to contemporary, and span a range of perspectives, from children to old men. Like “The Variance,” suburbia and gentrification are touched on again in “6:19,” but this story, which centers on an office worker’s daily commute, takes on an almost Twilight Zone sensibility as Nathan, the main character, finds himself being pulled seemingly inevitably toward an alternate future and way of living. “Precious,” meanwhile, a story about a beautiful child born to unremarkable parents, is constructed like a modern fairy tale. The baby girl, Kristi-Anne, is anointed like royalty with the girls of the neighbourhood acting as “miniature ladies-in-waiting” while “[t]he banker’s wife and the wife of the school principal groomed their sons as possible suitors for a grown-up Kristi-Anne, who might distribute among their grandchildren her petal cheeks, her doll-like eyes, her thin and graceful fingers.” Yet the repeated refrain of “Careful. Careful, Kristin-Anne” throughout the story builds to a shocking and unexpected ending that turns the genre on its head, making the tale the most memorable of the lot.


Other stories are elevated by unique touches of humour, like the bizarre and amusing “Apple,” in which a teenage girl and her classmates must deal with the unintended consequences of a sex-ed class. “Because of Geraldine” similarly explores life from the perspective of young female characters but from a drastically different perspective, focusing instead on familial obsession. This fascination centres on their father’s first love, a singer named Geraldine. As Hill writes, “The face that took up the whole cover of It’s Too Late Now, was different from any I’d ever seen in person or in pictures. She had hair the colour of red granite, but thick and cascading, and her face was a palette – deep blue eyeshadow, thick mascara, flushed cheeks – a style I would emulate all my teenage years. Lib pushed up close beside me now. ‘I knew she’d look like that,’ she said, and what she meant was, like someone from somewhere else, like she was a star.” Perhaps the most realistically staged piece, “Because of Geraldine” effectively showcases the author’s insight into the complications of the human heart.


Not every story is fresh and engaging. Surprisingly Hill’s 2011 Journey Prize-winning story “Petitions to St. Chronic” falls short. The premise – three strangers in a hospital vigil for someone none of them know – is too thin and much of the subsequent redemption arc seems to fulfil some trope about downtrodden female characters that has been seen many times before. Still, like the rest of the stories in this collection, the writing is of fine calibre and there is little doubt that Miranda Hill is a new Can-Lit writer to watch.


It seems fitting that the collection ends with the eponymous “Sleeping Funny,” in which a single mother returns to her hometown to sort through her father’s house after his death. As she reluctantly reconnects with her past, Clea struggles to sleep in the home she once shared with her parents. Partway through the story, she awakes from a restless sleep feeling as though “it was as if, in her sleep, she had been up to something. Something physically demanding that in her waking hours would be completely beyond her. The way, as a child, she had dreamed she was flying, and awoken with a certainty that she could do it again.” It is this sensibility that seems to inform much of Hill’s writing; this hazy, half-remembered state where anything is possible, even a child taking flight, and in this way she has crafted a unique and memorable debut.