In Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's National Book Award finalist novel, a girl falls into a deep and impenetrable sleep, and the borders between her provincial French village and the peculiar, beguiling realm of her dreams begin to disappear: A fat woman sprouts delicate wings and takes flight; a failed photographer stumbles into the role of pornographer; a beautiful young wife grows to resemble her husband's viol. And in their midst travels Madeleine, the dreamer, who is trying to make sense of her own metamorphosis.
The lush Madeleine Is Sleeping...can be trying. It is too often reminiscent of those French films where long-haired peasant maidens in muslin shifts flash their tawny limbs in fields of wildflowers and the countryfolk demonstrate their lusty nature by making a mess with their food. Two blurry, surreal stories intertwine: a rural French family thinks its daughter's state of perpetual slumber is good luck for the farm, while the reader has access to her dreams of adventures at a boarding school and later a circus. There's some fine writing here ... but in service of a showy sensuality that seems more insisted upon than felt.
Written in brief, dreamy segments...the book alternates deftly between reality and illusion ...The book culminates in a masterful merge between Madeleine's waking life and her dreams, making it impossible to discern whether reality ever existed in Bynum's imaginative tale. Replete with Kafkaesque metamorphoses, Freudian fantasies, Aesopian justice and religious metaphor, the novel is equal parts fairy tale, fable, romance and bildungsroman. At times, the allegorical allusions grow predictable, and some readers may be put off by the constant shifts and uncertainty between fact and fiction. Others looking for a challenging, unusual read will be thrilled by the imagination and mysterious energy that haunt this remarkable debut.