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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #14 (April 5, 2005), page 15.

Bad dream

Madeleine is Sleeping

By Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

Harcourt, 2004

Hardcover, 259 pages, $22.00

By Josephine Bridges

I asked for it. A friend mentioned that a book by a woman with an Asian-sounding middle name was a 2004 National Book Award finalist. Maybe Iíd like to review it. I checked the Asian angle; turns out the authorís mother is Chinese, left China when she was eight. Go for it, said my editor. I have only myself to blame.

I look for the good in everything, including in my work as a critic of books, art, music, and film. And sometimes I find good where no other reviewers do, a fairly embarrassing situation. But this is worse. Madeleine is Sleeping came close to winning a major book award. I think itís the worst book I have read in four and a half decades.

Granted, there is lovely writing here, but had the author asked my advice about what to do with the finished product, Iíd have suggested that she try what junkyards do with cars that arenít roadworthy, though they may have admirable steering wheels or shock absorbers: part it out.

The plot is too contorted to summarize; suffice it to say that this is my favorite representative passage: "But the leaf is more firmly attached to the tree than, by all appearances, it should be. M. Pujol searches for other signs: If that crow takes flight, he tells himself. That thistle bursts. That handsaw, in the distance, ceases. Then I will not have to go."

And this is my least favorite: "Who is Marguerite, not to welcome love when it arrives at last? Wearing her red cape and brandishing her sword, she courts the widow; she wins her hand; she takes up residence in the very grand house, and learns that if one concentrates, growing a William II moustache is not so difficult to do."

Characters range from Mme. Cochon, a "grotesquely fat" yet surrealistically angelic woman, to M. Jouy, a "sad and stately half-wit" predator upon children. What is done to young Madeleineís hands following her loathsome relations with M. Jouy is reason enough to wish I could excise Madeleine is Sleeping from my memory.

The form of this novel is a relief from its content. Some chapters consist of one sentence, while the longest lasts only two pages, but each has a title, and the titles are intriguing: "Penitence," "Curdled Milk," "Math," and "Objects Lost on Journeys" are among them. Certain chapter titles appear more than once. "Hush," "Stirring," and "She Dreams" crop up many times, while "Impostor" and "In the Candlelight" make occasional appearances. If it werenít for the chapter titles, in fact, I probably would have stopped reading Madeleine is Sleeping less than a quarter of the way through and reneged on this review.

And if I hadnít read all the way to the end, I wouldnít have come upon the third line of T.S. Eliotís "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," a poem I dearly love, embedded in one of the chapters. The author acknowledges a number of writers, all the way from Ludwig Bemelmans, who wrote the wonderful "Madeline" series of childrenís books, to Yasunari Kawabata, but there is no mention of Eliot here, and that is a serious oversight.

Madeleine is Sleeping may be Sarah Shun-lien Bynumís first novel, but that is no excuse for it.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books

  Amazon