Witnessing and Waiting in “The Sound of Holding Your Breath”: A Book Review

Natalie Sypolt’s standout collection of short fiction, The Sound of Holding Your Breath, was published in 2018 by West Virginia University Press, and I regret not reviewing the book sooner. The heart and humanity winding through her work make me want to be a better person. Natalie’s contribution to contemporary Appalachian literature is significant, even ground-breaking, in its exploration of love and freewill. The opening story of the collection, “Diving,” unveils a teen boy’s crush on his sister’s husband, inchoate longing that does not yet understand itself. The story foreshadows the ways the inner lives and desires of the characters we meet will be gently and unsparingly revealed against a backdrop of family and community in the wild, wonderful, and treacherous hills of West Virginia.

Sometimes a character, like Mae in “Love, Off to the Side,” seems content with a cycle of misery as she repeats the pattern of going from man to man, while not feeling the love offered by her best friend and rescuer, Lissy. In the title story, “The Sound of Holding Your Breath,” Marley tries to make peace by announcing a pregnancy that does not yet exist in order to restore her marriage. Her wishful thinking is inspired by a tragic encounter between her husband, Clint, and the man who molested Marley when she was a child. Marley kept the molestation a secret; when it erupts into violence, a new secret is spawned, and so it goes.

Characters who rebel against received patterns and community expectations often fare no better. The prodigal son in “Flaming Jesus” is broken and doomed to leave home again. In “Lettuce,” the wife of a veteran who lost an arm to an IED in the Iraq war sneaks off to eat meat to satisfy her primal desire for the man her husband used to be, whole in mind and body. Sypolt’s characters, like the rest of us, experience situations they do not choose and respond with what resources they have available. Accidents happen, innocent accidents, like slipping on a wet rock when crossing a stream, hitting your head, and drowning.

Other “accidents” are intentional, like the older brother who pushes his girlfriend, who’s not a swimmer, off a dock in “At the Lake.” Younger brother Ben is a witness to the accident, but he’s young and bound by family loyalty. Family stands by family; family nurtures until it doesn’t; a family’s name and reputation can be a bridge or a trap. In “My Brother and Me,” Mari/Marianne sees herself and her brothers as a family prone to violence. In the battle of the Dixon siblings VS the partners they love/hate, Mari fears the Dixons cannot break the cycle and must be held accountable.

While some characters plunge and blunder through the collected stories, others are watchful bystanders who hold their breath, wait, and reflect. One of my favorite characters is the namesake narrator in “Get Up, June,” a young woman with a degree of autonomy. When her father, a preacher who is a recovered addict, begins hosting private Bible lessons for his congregation in his home, June can join in, go to bingo with her mother, or walk down the hill to spend time with her ailing grandmother. Her father, Michael, is a charismatic comforter, wise to the words that will ease human suffering, but he’s also a cheater and deceiver. Our greatest freedom, it seems, is the capacity to understand and honor the humanity of our loved ones when they demonstrate their worst flaws.

I agree with the novelist Wiley Cash, who said of The Sound of Holding Your Breath: “This is an important book by an important writer.” Sypolt’s collection is an American classic on par with Winesburg, Ohio and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The plights of her characters leave me wondering: how free are we, and how much constrained by our people and place, the beliefs and ideas we inherit, and the landscapes we experience? The Sound of Holding Your Breath is a hauntingly beautiful collection of stories that I recommend for your reading pleasure.

Valley Falls State Park, West Virginia

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