MADELEINE IS SLEEPING by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum


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A self-consciously exquisite first novel, written in one-page (sometimes one-sentence) chapters, about the difference between a young French girl’s dreams and her real life.

Madeleine lies in a deep sleep, watched over by her jam-making mother, her distracted farmer father, and her various younger siblings. Madeleine’s hands are wrapped in bandages, having been dipped in lye as punishment for her sexual relations with the town half-wit. Meanwhile, like an x-rated Sleeping Beauty or Dorothy, if Kansas and Oz were equally weird, Madeleine is dreaming stories and characters: Saint Michel, whom she idolizes; a woman who sprouts wings; a woman whose husband carves her face on his viola; a man with a magic gift for expressive flatulence. Eventually in her dreams, also possibly in her past, Madeleine travels to Paris to live as the storybook Madeleine with Mme. Clavel (oddly the original Madeleine is not credited in the notes at the back of the book, where Bynum lists her “literary” references). Madeleine runs away from Mme. Clavel’s convent to join a gypsy circus, where she meets the characters of her dreams. Back home, no one will buy preserves from Madeleine’s mother anymore, and the siblings are getting into trouble. While her mother appears to dote on Madeleine, she can’t help escalating acts of violence toward the unconscious girl. As Madeleine sleeps on, she and the gypsies are supported by a rich widow who pays Madeleine to slap the flatulence-maker’s naked backside. Madeleine and the circus photographer both fall in love with the flatulence-maker, who ends up in the same asylum where the half-wit who molested Madeleine has been placed. In other words, dream and reality begin to converge. Madeleine wakes long enough to organize a performance in the village barn. Then she falls back to sleep while the villagers watch.

Bynum is undoubtedly gifted with language and well-versed in literary allusion, but her first is almost unreadable and frankly sleep-inducing.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-15-101059-5
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 2004