Total humanity: A review of Mad Hope

Reviewed in this essay: Mad Hope by Heather Birrell. Coach House Books, 2012.

Mad Hope, by Toronto writer Heather Birrell, is a collection of 11 short stories that gives the unshakable sense that life, death, love, and grief are being felt and experienced at the highest pitch, all around you. From family relationships, to lovers’ quarrels, intimate forms of loss, and the many shapes parenthood may take, these narratives are linked through the questions they relentlessly seek answers for: what is it that connects us to one another, and when do relationships wane, when do they wax? Why do people break down, break up, come together, stray apart, or stand still? Birrell’s prose deftly manages these sprawling questions with candour, humour, and a seeming recognition of the fact that we rarely get the answers we hope for.

“BriannaSusannaAlana” is a beautiful portrait of childhood and sexuality, alternating perspective to reveal the spectrum of awkwardness, fear, excitement, and self-consciousness of growing up. The multiple perspectives provide poignant snapshots of the girls’ individual experiences and the gaps of understanding that correspond to their varying ages. The young Brianna finds herself overwhelmed by the act of processing the grown-up world around her and so “closed her eyes rapidly, and swiveled her head around. This was called Taking Snapshots. In this way she didn’t have to see it all—the whole world—at once. She was very frightened.” Birrell manages to distill visual and emotional experience into language with an astonishing economy.

The other standout stories of Mad Hope are “Wanted Children,” which offers a poignant reminder that the wounds that afflict us are not always visible; and “Dingbat” a completely engrossing story of mourning, sympathy, and the overwhelming desire to fill up the gaps left by loss. In “Wanted Children” we find a couple struggling to cope with the experience of miscarriage. The sustained image of water throughout the story offers a commentary on what connects humans to nature and to each other, showing a range of natural and personal experiences that are mutually permeable, and always vulnerable. While water is a vital life force, Birrell reminds us that it often confronts us with our smallness, it is subject to pollution, and is unforgiving, rank, infected and infecting. Water is then the perfect metaphor for grief, for it is wounded and wounding at the same time, it is a ravaged state of being, yet does not always recognize its own power, it is silent and, more often than not, invisible. As the narrator so aptly puts it:  “why did people’s wounds never match up?”

“Dingbat” is similarly moving, as it considers the shapes and silences of losing a loved one. It shows us that sympathy is always tacky in varying degrees, and never ever enough, by any measure, to lessen the pain of death. The story revolves around a 17-year-old girl, lovingly referred to by her mother as “Dingbat,” who is trying her best to cope with her father’s death. The narrative implicitly plays with the notion of trading death for a new life—engaging in an impossible kind of arithmetic. Like the rest of the collection, this story is completely enthralling, and profoundly grounded in an empathy for the traumas and moments of relief of simply being human.