Sleeping Alone (202 pages; Graywolf Press), author Ru Freeman’s newest book, leads readers on a journey into the lives of a variety of unique individuals. In this collection of eleven short stories, Freeman utilizes a different point of view in each to tell of struggles with identity, loss, love, and more. Along the way, she reveals how thinking deeply about our own lives, contemplating our choices, and trying to make meaning of it all is simply a part of being human.
The conflict in some stories involves familial relations, such as “The Wake,” which relates how an eccentric mother’s antics eventually lead to her family’s involvement in a butter-obsessed cult. Other stories examine more internal conflict, such as a character’s struggle with Kobe Bryant’s death and how it affected him as a Black basketball player in “Kobe Loves Me.”
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Sleeping Alone also touches on healing and renewal–on whether people pursue it or not. Some remain broken and cause others pain, while some attempt to push forward and remedy the past. In “Retaining Walls,” a seemingly ordinary contractor named Saul Morton enjoys renovating homes while ignoring his own. One day, he receives a call from the Stevensons, an old married couple who hire him to refurbish their house in hopes of providing a nicer space for themselves, their children, and grandchildren. Saul, having worked twenty years in the business, continually comments on the nature of renovations, why people get them, and how a house tells the stories of those who have lived there. Hope, he ruminates, “is what keeps Home Depot in business: the hope of erasure, the anticipation of obliterating whatever dull taste has been acquired.”
This would seem to be true for the Stevensons, who dance around the subject of their missing son, Luke. Saul meets the couple’s family over the months of the renovation, and notes such things about the interior as Luke’s name “written in calligraphy, along with those of his sibling, in the frame around the large family photo centered on the mantel.” Yet everyone avoids speaking about Luke and “the omission is tangible.” Saul reasserts that people have “the shared delusion that the walls contain both blame and the antidote” and this “prompts his clients to build.”
As Saul’s work progresses, the characters become increasingly open about the family tragedy. As they do, Freeman reveals the temptation to deny loss and the process of restoring oneself through change. By the end of the story, Saul’s outlook remains largely pessimistic, but he allows for the occurrence of revival in rare cases. He will still “observe the disintegration of unions, the dissolution of relationships, participate in the construction of lives.” However, “Sometimes, rarely, he will bear witness to joy. He will create spaces to house these worlds.”
Sleeping Alone stirs both the painful memories of the past and celebrates them as a way to carry on. In each story, Freeman presents such an assortment of individuals to learn from, whether they’re a seventy-seven-year-old masseuse, an Irish landlady or a Middle Eastern immigrant. Certain characters have bad intentions, while others are simply trying to get by. Sleeping Alone presents us with a deftly rendered cross-section of contemporary society, grappling with the problems common to all.