The title story of this collection, my favourite, “The Variance”, is filled with so many details that it reads a little like a logic puzzle. (I like logic puzzles and short stories.)
Sometimes the details have direct and practical significance, as with the choice of baby swing or stroller to hold a child, used to indicate a parent’s conformity to the neighbourhood’s expectations about child-rearing. No additional comment required.
Sometimes they offer a kind of short-hand characterization, as when readers can imagine the life of a wife married to a successful salesman. Much can be inferred based on the details of professional lives that are lightly sketched.
Details like these possess a shape that is larger than the single detail, but there are others which cast an entire shadow behind them.
“How one morning my father left without putting out the garbage, so our mother did it, and just an hour later backed into the can on our away to the library, scattering potato peelings and toilet paper rolls and a whole pot-load of burnt spaghetti into the street.”
That detail, a “whole pot-load of burnt spaghetti” holds another portion of the story that readers can imagine for themselves.
It is included deliberately. Readers can imagine that the circumstances in that family’s life at that time likely yielded a variety of minor catastrophes, messes and losses.
We do not need to see the dinner scene, the burning or the casting out.
The burnt remains are, literally, detritus in a carefully crafted tale of devastation and recovery.
Readers are removed from the direct action, slightly.
Just as, with the resolution of “The Variance”, the action, the “nannies and mothers and fathers all going about their usual business” is reflected back.
It unfolds “pane by pane” so that it seems there is an “identical street running parallel to the crescent”.
Behind or alongside the overt narrative, meals are prepared and cast aside.
Readers wonder what is authentic? In terms of parenting and partnering, actions and reactions are reflected. Not only between the pages, but between the stories and readers’ comprehension of them.
Sometimes they are windows, and other times fun-house mirrors. Sometimes opposites can be held in a single image, as though windows might be fun-house mirrors.
‘Pretty, but completely antisocial,’ he said. ‘They can only look at others of their kind through glass. (“Sleeping Funny”)
Was it Lisa Alther who commented on the significance of two ideas in seeming opposition being simultaneously held as truths in one’s mind? (I’ve looked and looked for this reference, but can’t find it, so I’m hoping another reader can help.)
Regardless, the multi-faceted characters in Miranda Hill’s stories are certainly capable of holding conflicting ideas as two halves of a whole truth in a single moment.
Cathy feels that the “look she gave me made me wish I’d never said it and it made me wish I could have the chance to say it again”. (“Because of Geraldine”)
After Muriel gives birth to Kristi-Anne, she had “at once, a delightful feeling of retreating heaviness, as if someone had lifted a thick blanket off the bed on a warm spring day, and also a terrible dread that something important had been forgotten”. (“Precious”)
And Clea realizes that talking to Carter was like “treading water, an action that she could continue indefinitely – unless she thought too much about it, and then she’d forget how and sink”.
Denial and desire, relief and burden,survival and oblivion: the characters in Sleeping Funny live recklessly and cautiously on the pages of Miranda Hill’s fiction.
What short stories have you been reading lately? Do you think you would enjoy this collection, or have you already read it?