Amy Hempel’s “Sing to It”

April 30th, 2019  |  Published in April 2019

Since William Trevor’s death last year, American Amy Hempel is probably the finest writer of short stories anywhere in the world.  Her new collection, “Sing to It”, is her first book in fourteen years, although the stories in it have been published in various magazines and journals elsewhere.  For those of you enamored of incredible writing, as I am, Hempel can’t be topped.

Hempel’s stories deal with the quirky, often examining the lives of people on the margins, the lonely, the marginalized.  She is, perhaps thankfully, not writing about gender or relations between men and women, nor does she write with an ideological edge or undertone to her work. Her understanding of human character and foible are so acute and astute that each story is something of a jewel unto itself.

Some of her stories are only one page long. The pack an emotional wallop that left this reader often stunned, dazed.  Lydia Davis, another excellent writer of short fiction, often does the same, but Hempel’s the master.

In two of her longer stories, she digs deeply into emotional tone and creates characters who are often characterized by deep empathy and compassion. In “A Full-Service Shelter”, for example, we are presented with a woman narrator who works in a shelter for lost or abandoned dogs in Spanish Harlem in New York, along with two other women. It’s easy enough to get an “awww” out of the cute factor which humans often subscribe to dogs in particular, but Hempel spares no detail in describing how her narrator feeds, cleans, walks, and, most importantly, loves these stray animals, some of whom may be adopted, others of whom face certain death because of maltreatment of former owners. Descriptions of cleaning the cages of sick dogs are brutally delineated; a dog occasionally attacks a worker (for which these employees are trained). The interactions of the employees are clearly and lovingly rendered.  Hempel’s territory here is unusual; she does not pretend that this work is easy, and constant budget cutbacks from the City of New York make the work more difficult and directly impact on the dogs’ well being, which is then made up for by the women working there. Each dog has a different character or personality but they all in some way respond to the care and affection manifest by our narrator. The hours are long and conditions dirty.  Hempel’s story is an excellent reminder of how people find animals expendable or irrelevant, and the workers in this shelter offer the only kindness these dogs may get.  Her writing is exquisite, and the mood of the story, midway between melancholic and heartening, is pitch perfect.

In “Cloudland”, the longest and last story in the collection, a newly retired teacher from New York (fired for smoking pot with a couple of her students in a private school), moves to a small town in Florida where she rents a falling-down house and finds part-time work as a home health aide, work she both enjoys and is good at.  She is funny and self-aware and smart. She’s also flooded with memories of her great life “mistake”; she was once pregnant with the child of a married man and found herself in a “maternity” home on the coast of Maine, waiting out the birth of her daughter, whom she never once sees. Descriptions of the “care” in this home, the occasional interactions with the other young, pregnant mothers, and the “shame” of her circumstances” are beautifully rendered (without self-pity).  Our narrator fantasizes , over the years, about this phantom daughter; it’s not quite an obsession, as she does live her life admirably and with both joy and zest.  Eventually, another mother from her past will track her down (she’d become a reporter) and our narrator will learn the appalling fate of those babies who weren’t adopted.  Hempel again tackles a huge and topical issue, the treatment of women who were pregnant outside of marriage and the fate of their children in prose that’s so understated that it thus becomes that much more powerful. The narrator’s interactions with random neighbors and her care clients are also admirably rendered. We readers find ourselves rooting for this strong, independent, resilient woman; the societal odds have been against her since her original “mistake”.  And Hempel’s way with words, again, is so powerful, so strong, and so full of pithy observations and near aphorisms that we readers are entirely absorbed in her world and that of her narrator. This story is amazingly strong, sure of itself, and contemporary.  Hempel’s ability to write the story of one woman whose circumstances remind us of larger social issues, as in the story of the dog shelter, is astonishing.

Hempel’s prose is perfect. Nary a word of out of place, nor a wrong word choice is anywhere in evidence.  Her writing reminds me of poetry as she chooses every word and every tone to be flawless. Hempel’s work reminds us that the power and elegance of words are an art form unto themselves. Something transcendent is afoot in Hempel’s magnificent work.

–Daniel Brown

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