By Caroline Henley
Sing To It, Amy Hempel’s eighth book, is a gift to her readers, a collection of stories of ill-fated dogs, philandering husbands, and secretly taped conversations, set in a scattering of houses up and down the East Coast — houses that all happen to be in dire need of repair.
Hempel’s stories sit in moments of grief then breeze swiftly to moments of joyful appreciation for life’s minutiae. Hempel has said in past interviews that she’s drawn to such moments when small power shifts occur between two people. Sing To It plays with these transitions of power, with wisps of scenes that move from the narrator idly pulling twigs out of a pool drain to a shocking tale of child abuse and suicide at the neighbor’s.
In “A Full-Service Shelter,” Hempel asks her readers to stay as late as a kill-shelter’s volunteers do and bear witness to the injustice suffered by the pitbulls on death row: “They knew us as the ones who worked for free, who felt that an hour stroking a blanket-wrapped dog whose head never left your lap and who was killed the next morning was time well spent.” The repetition of “they knew us as” contributes to a mounting tension and anger throughout the story. When the volunteer passes a homeless man who asks for the same compassion she shows the dogs, the story pans out into the wider world and that anger crumbles into helplessness.
Hempel could easily leave us in these moments of despair, considering the darkness of the subject matter in each story, but mercifully tempers it in turn. In “Quiet Car,” she describes a confused elderly man who settles into a leather armchair, which had been abandoned in a back-alley. The police “were kind when they contacted the man’s son in another state. But this won’t go well, I thought, and chose not to follow the story.” Hempel is conscious of how hard she can push and pull the reader and curates a deft balancing act throughout these stories.
Hempel’s orchestration is at its most dramatic in the final and longest story, “Cloudland.” In the book’s acknowledgments, she thanks author Chuck Palahniuk for leading her to the true crime story that inspired it, which he passed to her because “he could not find anything funny in it.” Hempel details the narrator’s awful discovery of what really happened at the “maternal home” where she birthed, then gave up, a daughter.
Throughout her reckoning, she also teases funny anecdotes of daily life during the same time period: a saleslady tries to sell her two left rain boots, and she signs a petition protesting animal abuse at Mariah Carey’s upcoming wedding. Why vacillate between horror and these more peaceful moments? Hempel writes, “You want to be choosy about what you let into your soul when you are likely not long for this world.” Sing To It confronts the traumas of life head-on, but takes the necessary time to recover afterward.
Caroline Henley is a writer living in Brooklyn, where she runs The Farm, a reading series for satirical and critical writing. She’s currently a student at the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Non-Fiction program.