Phillips Creates a Dark, Brilliant Chorus of Characters in “Sleepovers”

In Sleepovers, the reader becomes intimately familiar with a dark chorus of characters and the ways in which they shape and are shaped by life in the South. Ashleigh Bryant Phillips writes in the way many Southerners tell stories: the characters’ thoughts are poignant and clear, but meander from one place to the next. Reading this book feels like following a firefly into a dark forest.

Phillips’ characters vary wildly in age and disposition. The collection opens with “Shania,” a story about a firecracker of a seven-year-old and the strange goings-on in her house. It’s told through the perspective of Shania’s best friend, who braves the often-frightening Victorian home to spend time with Shania. We never learn the narrator’s name — a theme that occurs throughout different stories in the collection. The narrator isn’t interested in sharing herself with the reader — she’s trying to shine a spotlight on her friend, whom she deems more interesting.  Phillips’ sparkling voice and the characters’ striking choices ensure that each person feels complicated and complete.

In “The Bass,” we meet Donnie, a young father battling depression. His mind floats between different desires: he wants to have sex with a sales clerk, he wants to love his wife, he wants to die, he wants to reconcile the abuse he experienced as a child. Donnie’s struggle to exist in the space between these desires oscillates between valiant and reprehensible. As with many stories in this collection, the reader can see a clear path out, but has to watch the character fumble through the dark and pray that they find it on their own. This tension between reader, character, and Phillips’ infuriatingly steady voice, no matter the circumstances, creates a reading experience that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Reading Sleepovers means feeling not only part of this community, but feeling inside of it; watching from the ground as characters flutter near one another then fall away like birds.

And the characters keep coming back. One of the more brilliant aspects of Sleepovers is the way in which people make cameos in one another’s stories. For example, Donnie reappears briefly in “The Bear,” one of many stories that explore the thin line between the civilized and wild, demonstrated through the young narrator’s reaction to a bear shot dead near her house. We meet Krystal when she’s a lively sixteen-year-old with amber hair and a perfect dive. We run into Krystal later on when she’s a store clerk with four children, a filthy trailer, and white blonde hair. In cases like these, the reader has the rare and thrilling privilege of knowing more about the character than the narrator can see.

The stories jump through time, but all exist in the same universe, perhaps all within the same place. Halifax County, North Carolina is named in two stories, but the consistent dialect throughout the collection and the way the characters repeatedly interact makes the reader feel like they’re meandering through the forested roads of one tightly knit community. The way characters reemerge in each other’s stories serves as a physical manifestation of people in the South going over to their neighbors’ houses, making themselves at home.

Sleepovers holds within it the relationship between Southerners and nature, the cracks that abuse creates in a community and a person, and the bravery it takes to carve a place for one’s self in a world where there appears to be none.

By Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
Hub City Press
Published June 16, 2020