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Madeleine Is Sleeping: A Novel
ISBN: 0151010595

By Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
Review by: Michelle Humphrey


Madeleine, the heroine of Bynum's debut novel, lies in bed and dreams. She’s part Sleeping Beauty waiting for the world’s kiss, part cocooned creature transforming from within. We follow her as she journeys from dream to dream, from a vine-covered house in Paris to a circus where she falls in love with The Flatulent Man. She and the circus photographer follow Flatulent to an insane asylum, and Madeleine plots an escape. The surreal and by turns perversely comic storyline is paralleled with vignettes from the non-dreaming world, i.e., the French village, late nineteenth-century, where Madeleine lives.

A conventional arc of action might be a daunting task for a novel composed of dreams, and the point here may be to defy that very arc. Still, there’s some disappointment in discovering the momentum rises from the imagery rather than from an emotional engagement with the characters. Sexual awakening is a prominent theme and its distortions are striking – yet Madeleine’s molester Monsieur Jouy feels more like an old Freudian device than a complicated villain. If any of the dreamy figures holds the power to linger, it’s the character of Mother, a loving but disenchanted woman who embodies a nuanced love and hate toward her daughter.

One especially poignant scene includes Mimi, Madeleine’s sister, who is instructed to gather the day’s fruit. Mimi responds by pointing out to her mother the senselessness of the task, since no one buys her preserves anymore. Mother, accepting this truth, slumps down into her chair, and the little girl instantly regrets her words: "Silently, Mimi vows: I will fill a hundred baskets for her.” This piece, titled “Broken,” resonates more fully than other scenes with equally promising titles like “Amiss” and “Mistaken” – flashes of fiction which do not fall flat so much as they fail to attain similar dramatic peaks.

While the novel’s characters may be less-than-engrossing, there’s something ingenious about the unfolding of the narrative, where its two threads – dream and reality – echo each other, mingle and artfully switch places. The dreams progress with whimsical visuals (my favorite: the breath-animals Madeleine exhales onto a mirror), and the symbols borrow heavily from the 1979 tome of literary feminism, The Madwoman in the Attic. That book’s chapters on monstrosities, palimpsests and veils are evoked in the more memorable scenes where hands become paddles, letters contain hidden messages when held up to the light, and Mother, in an arresting moment, retrieves her wedding veil to find it’s been destroyed by moths.

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