A married woman lies in bed, not yet wanting to face the day, thinking about her husband’s attractive receptionist, dwelling on the younger woman’s clothes, her jogging, her energy. Alice, the wife, is thirty-three and in a slough of inertia. Her daughters are four and six. The constant trivial duties weigh like lead. She has grown afraid to drive the car. She finds herself scolding her children in sharp and hurtful tones and realizes that they conspire to keep their feelings from her.
The opening of Dreams of Sleep might come from half a hundred novels of the 1970’s or 1980’s, yet by the end of a dozen paragraphs, Josephine Humphreys has commanded attention. In the first place, her language is extraordinarily sharp. A typical sentence from the opening passage shows her skill at producing words that give double value: “She doesn’t see other women much, especially since her husband took up with one.” Furthermore, Humphreys reveals that “cliché” and “common truth” are sometimes synonyms; she writes phrases and scenes that make readers look furtively over their shoulders to see if someone has been peering into their secrets. When Will, for example, averts an unpleasant discussion by telling Alice that he loves her, she responds automatically:“I love you,” she says back. This marriage is like a place where the language is not her native tongue. She has managed to pick up the words and idioms and intonations gradually, so that now they sound almost right coming out of her mouth; but she knows they are his. Sometimes even the thoughts she has are his.
Similar moments of brilliant clarity about people and their motives appear throughout the novel. Even more remarkable, Humphreys achieves these insights not only with one character—an unhappy housewife heroine—but with three. The narrative viewpoint rotates among Alice Reese, her husband, Will, and the baby-sitter Iris Moon. Each, in turn, sees the others from new and individual angles; each additional perspective adds more lines and more dimensions, so that with each turn of the narrative, the characters, like figures generated in a complex drafting program, grow increasingly deep and round.
The people, the insights, and the strong, compassionate style are what make the book remarkable. In terms of plot, almost nothing happens; the action does not begin until the middle of the book, and the chief dramatic event—so far as Alice and Iris are concerned at any rate—is effective largely because it is abandoned. The characters, though, are so wonderfully true that they will linger long after the details of a page-turning plot would have faded. They are basically decent people—relatively kind, and well-meaning, no more selfish than the rest of the human race, often baffled but never deliberately made obscure or baffling. Furthermore, Humphreys treats them decently, though never sentimentally; when, for example, she shows Alice hurting her children, she is only letting the reader see what Alice most despises about herself.
The inertia of the Reese marriage begins to wobble with the introduction of a baby-sitter Iris Moon, a friend and neighbor of the black housekeeper who works for Will’s mother. Iris belongs to the last white family living in the housing project and was always the only white child in her class at school. Now, at seventeen, she has moved into a rooming house, takes classes at the community college, and wants to look after children despite her mother’s objection that it is a “colored person’s job.” First, Iris wants to leave her job at the sandwich shop where she is being sexually harassed. Second, and much more centrally, she wants children to love her.
Iris is a complex and touching character, product of a fragmented and emotionally barren childhood. Her mother, Fay—never married—gave up one child for adoption at fifteen and put a second into the hands of an aunt to rear; Iris’ younger brother, Ray, constantly in trouble with the law and a drain on her energies, has gone off to Florida with their father, Owen, reputed to have a wife and children there. There is as much distance and withholding in the housing project as in the doctor’s house. Fay, like Alice, can hardly be roused; Iris does her laundry, comes around daily to cook her lunch, provides the nurturing that she, herself, never got. In her rooming house, Iris does much the same for three low-functioning men—cooks, mothers, orders around, makes herself indispensable and the object of gratitude. The changing viewpoints, however, make Iris much more than a working-class earth mother. Seen from outside, she may be wise, canny, competent, mature far beyond her years, but as the exterior knowledge is sidelighted by internal evidence, the reader perceives the childishness of her longings, the selfishness in her nurture of others, the cost of being middle-aged at seventeen, the problems that grow from deciding to be a person who creates love by supplying food, nurture, and teaching.
The novel constantly surprises as each story in turn unfolds, reveals new information, casts a different light on what has gone before. Never the easy shocks of “hidden...
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