Gildfind, H. C. 2021. Born Sleeping. Miami University Press, 2021. RRP: $20.00, 81pp, ISBN: 9781881163695.
Australian writer H. C. Gildfind is the author of a brilliant and confronting short story collection, The Worry Front (Margaret River Press, 2018). Her new novella Born Sleeping is similarly unsettling and just as beautifully written. Its title refers to the experience that begins and drives the narrative: the shockingly unexpected death of a newborn child. While the medical term for this experience is stillborn, the more poetic born sleeping refers not to the baby but to the responses of the living: incomprehension or denial; an insistence on the humanity of the corpse; and the existential and moral torpor from which the central characters will be ‘awakened’ by the terrible fact of the baby’s death.
In its exploration of these important ideas, the novella establishes a series of oppositions which it will gradually unravel. Its narrator—an unnamed, childless and bookish writer, and sister-in-law to the baby’s parents—represents the life of the mind. By contrast, the life of the body, represented by the parents, is seen by the narrator as vacuous, narcissistic and exhibitionist: a cluster of generational flaws symbolised by the mother’s endless social media postings of her hugely pregnant body. What troubles this traditional mind/body distinction, and which makes Born Sleeping such an absorbing read, is the narrator’s acute self-awareness and capacity for self-criticism. From the outset, she knows herself to be an intellectual snob, and judgemental of experiences that she chooses not to understand, from suffering to social media. Most tellingly of all, she is, by her own admission, emotionally paralysed: a woman who can only love places and animals, not people, because places and animals ‘let you be’ (38). It is the awakening of this narrator into the realm of feeling, the body and a humbling sense of human connection which forms the existential heart of the story.
But Born Sleeping is not only a subtly rendered narrative about individual development. The content of the narrator’s interior monologues—the novella’s dominant mode—becomes more overtly political. Her new knowledge culminates in a shocked awareness of the cruel and visceral nature of the birth; medical ineptitude; and the systemic indifference to or shaming of people who have suffered the trauma of a stillbirth. The interconnectedness of the personal and the political is skilfully enacted in the novella’s point of view: the narrator’s choice of the second person ‘you’, which she describes as evoking both ‘intimacy and detachment—the self and the other; the individual and the communal’ (37), is used to chart the conflict between her habitual desire for distance and a growing recognition of the claims and rights of the mother, of parents and families, to speak out about their terrible sense of loss.
Other meta-textual elements in the novella raise ethical and aesthetic questions about how to write a story of another person’s trauma. The narrator considers issues of voyeurism and appropriation; the value and inadequacy of language; and the use of a linear plot to create some sense of meaning while refusing the certainty of closure. Most striking of all is the narrator’s privileging of social media over the realm of literary. Reading the mother’s posting of the baby’s death, and the rush of images and hashtags that follow, she recognises the capacity of social media to voice the protests of the grieving ‘in real-time, and more intensely, more inclusively, more … audibly than books ever can’ (79).
And yet. Born Sleeping reminds us, in the very act of its writing, that one of the great gifts of literature is the creation of a complex interiority that encourages readerly self-reflection and reflection on a wider society. As well, the very tenor of the narrator’s mind—her constant questions, qualifications, self-castigations, her arduous struggle for new understandings—reminds us that literature as a category of writing typically complicates, rather than simplifies, the problematic business of living. The novella asks: what is the basis of knowledge and human connection? Is it language, feeling, or touch? Or is the best we can hope for ‘proximity and witness’? Is trauma necessary to rouse us from our ‘sleeping’ existence? Is it something which simply ‘happens’ and can never be fully understood?
Born Sleeping also, like the best novellas, combines compression and resonance, economy and depth. Fiercely intelligent, admirably humane, deeply moving and carefully crafted, the book is, quite simply, unmissable. It is currently not released in Australia but can be ordered through Miami University Press or through online bookshops. This reviewer urges you to do so.
Susan Midalia is the author of three short story collections, all shortlisted for major Australian literary awards, and two novels. Her collection of flash fiction will be published by Night Parrot Press in 2021. She is the current Prose Editor of Westerly, and also works as a freelance fiction editor, mentor to emerging writers and a judge of literary competitions. She has a PhD in contemporary Australian women’s fiction, and has published on the subject in national and international literary journals.