By Calton Breen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Author Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum knows how complicated growing up can be. Her first novel, National Book Award finalist “Madeleine is Sleeping,” explored the turbulent, often surreal world of adolescence. There, Bynum revealed the tragedy that can hide behind the physical or hormonal changes that put an end to childhood. Far too many of us want to stay children, want to stay unformed and unfocused as adults, escaping into a private void we mistakenly call “freedom.”
Not so for Beatrice Hempel, the main character of Bynum’s latest book, “Ms. Hempel Chronicles.”
Yes, she’s confused in her own post-adolescent way, and at the start, barely more mature than the students in her middle school English class. But never does she turn away from the pain of growing up; even she fears leaving her own childhood behind. Ms. Hempel knows something Madeleine doesn’t: To become uniquely oneself is the way to life.
This honesty makes Beatrice all the more endearing. Through Bynum’s eye for detail, we experience the depth of that desire ourselves. We want Beatrice to succeed.
While some reviewers have called the book a novel, in reality it’s a loose collection of eight plotless stories. Not to say that they’re pointless, for these narratives do add up. The process, however, takes its time building up.
At a school talent show, Ms. Hempel describes the various natural gifts revealed by her students and fellow faculty members. But when she looks at herself, all she can find are shortcomings. When will the “marvelous,” hidden deep within her, find release?
“Ms. Hempel Chronicles” faithfully follows Beatrice for more than a decade and a half, waiting for her to bloom. Emotional truths build up — get captured off the cuff at odd moments, and over time, as her awareness develops.
Readers of Bynum’s first book, “Madeleine is Sleeping,” beware. You may be surprised and disappointed by this straightforward portrait of the seemingly mundane.
Other readers may be put off by the slow reveal. We don’t find out that Ms. Hempel’s first name is Beatrice until a fourth of the way in; we don’t find out that she’s half Chinese until halfway. But those who persevere and who revel in the psychological tension of a subtle character study will be rewarded by moments of touching beauty. Albeit, in miniature.
One could argue that the book is lacking. The setting is New York City, but this is only mentioned offhandedly a couple of times. Place, except in the story “Crossing,” has nearly no significance.
The sheer number of characters can also be daunting. Both in and out of school, they come and go, their continuity thrown to the wind. The passage of time is also hard to track. Perhaps what is most troubling for a traditionalist is that without a plot, the significance that lies inside each story can easily be lost.
Yet for a sophisticated reader, Bynum masterfully takes Ms. Hempel from a callow young woman in her early 20s, to a mature mother-to-be in her mid-30s. Bynum presents to us a woman who has finally “arrived” at the conclusion.
Each story in the book has its own unique central dilemma: being misunderstood, feeling safe, rejection, loss, the revealing or keeping of secrets. But what knits them together is their shared goal of emotional understanding.
Instead of the traditional route of finding meaning through physical action in the hands of will and desire, Ms. Hempel must find her answers in a more embracing way. She creates validity out of the disparate pieces of her life by making room for all of them. Reaching up to touch a crow in flight, reading the exact moment of rejection in a potential lover’s eyes, holding someone close to still their pain – these powerful moments of magic and recognition are what define her life.
Instead of a void, Ms. Hempel has indeed found herself.
“Ms. Hempel Chronicles,” by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. Published by Harcourt Inc., hardback, 2008. $23.00.
Calton Breen can be reached at email@example.com.