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Accomplished stories mix with the tedious

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In 2011, Hamilton-based Miranda Hill won the prestigious Journey Prize for her first published short story, Petitions to Saint Chronic.

Now, a year later, she has a collection of nine short stories published by a major publishing house.

There are some accomplished stories here told from a surprisingly wide range of voices.

But there are others that are tedious and so remote from the known world that they fail to engage our emotions.

In one of the best stories, Hill writes about sex from the point of view of a pubescent girl called Apple. This story never lets go, despite a hilarious magic leap, because the voice of Apple is so engaging.

In the Journey Prize-winning Petitions to Saint Chronic, three strangers, drawn together by seeing a man deliberately plummet 24 stories and then miraculously survive, gather at the hospital day after day, hoping to meet him.

They set up shifts, eat a few meals together, and gradually emerge as the lost but hopeful people they are, still clinging to the ledge of their own lives.

Sometimes it's amazing the tale that Hill can spin from a tiny seed of an idea. In a story called 6:19, a man who has just moved to the suburbs discovers that he has been taking the slow train home from work.

In the days that follow, he makes every effort to board the fast train which actually leaves later, but each time he is sabotaged by some work-related fiasco (he is, after all, a busy man, on the fast track to a prestigious career).

Every day, he ends up once again on the slow train when it pulls onto a siding to let the fast train pass. And each time he glimpses a woman working in her garden.

In a way 6:19 is a simple story, simply told, but like Petitions to Saint Chronic it plumbs the depths of our existential dilemma.

The title story, Sleeping Funny, is just as interesting but far more explicit. A woman and her 11-year-old daughter return to her childhood neighbourhood in Montreal. Her father is very ill and dies, leaving her to dispose of a disorderly house.

The daughter, very sharp and funny (rather like Apple), thrives in this run-down neighbourhood, which is new to her, while her mother suffers from insomnia and wakes up with pains in her neck. There is no high drama here and little mystery, just a gritty, sometimes amusing, portrayal of looking back and then moving on.

One of the head-scratchers features a long story told by a Kingston minister who is on trial in 1857 for body-snatching.

It seems, at first, that the minister is innocently protecting a poor medical student, but soon the story develops mysterious, apocalyptic dimensions, and in the end the medical student sprouts wings and flies away.

In another story, Digging for Thomas, a Second World War widow plants a victory garden with her young son. At the same time she notices that her late husband's possessions are mysteriously disappearing.

When she discovers a pocket watch among the potatoes sprouting in the garden, the explanation is obvious, and intended to be touching.

But it is difficult to be touched by the plight of characters who have never seemed real in the first place.

Perhaps the best way to describe both the style and the content of these stories is experimental and determinedly original.

Hill, the wife of CanLit star Lawrence Hill (The Book of Negroes), seems to be searching for subject matter, trying out dramatic openings, leaping from gritty or amusing realism to allegory. But for the reader all of these leaps can be disconcerting.

 

Winnipeg writer Faith Johnston's second book, a novel, The Only Man in the World, will be published in October by Turnstone Press.

 

 

Sleeping Funny

By Miranda Hill

Doubleday Canada, 312 pages, $30

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2012 J7

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