Reviewed by Geraldine Brooks
Sunday, November 12, 2006
THE VIEW FROM CASTLE ROCK
By Alice Munro
Knopf. 349 pp. $25.95
My mother's childhood was shaped by a small town named Boorowa in the flat plains west of Australia's Great Dividing Range, and the stories she told of her years there shaped my childhood in its turn. Boorowa and my mother's tales about it were much on my mind as I read Alice Munro's latest collection of stories, The View From Castle Rock. Munro's rural Canadian settings might be a planet away, and snow-blasted rather than sun-baked, but they are similar places of nickel-edged wood stoves, worn linoleum and worn-out hearts, where adults move tight-lipped through accustomed chores and a child in search of signs of love will need to crack a hard code if she is to find any.
The View From Castle Rock is, in some important ways, a departure for this masterful Canadian writer. Half of the collection is more or less historical fiction, written at a considerable distance from the probing investigations of contemporary psyches for which Munro is so celebrated. For more than a decade, she tells us in a brief foreword, she has been collecting information about a branch of her family that came from a valley described in the Statistical Account of Scotland in 1799 as having "no advantages." She takes that grim judgment as the title for part one of her collection, a set of five connected stories that transport her forebears from their mean, mossy Borders village to a new world that provides little of the glory or prosperity they might have expected from such a bold leap into the unknown.
The second part of the book, "Home," offers six stories that seem at first rather more familiarly Munro-esque. A young girl is at their center, an intelligent outsider, judged by the joyless rectitude of a small place and judging it in her turn. She is the girl who becomes the woman who leaves, who has an intellectual and sexual existence far beyond the parameters of her hometown's mores and expectations, and who, when she returns, must account for the losses as well as the gains that her choices have brought her. We have met this girl/woman many times in Munro's stories; the writer's genius has been to find so many rich permutations within this familiar narrative arc.
The difference, in these new stories, is that Munro herself distinguishes them as "a special set . . . closer to my own life than the other stories I had written." The point of the earlier works, she writes, even the first-person ones, was to make a story. The point of these is to explore "a life, my own life." This set, she says, pays "more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does."
So it is not very surprising to find, in the pages of a story titled "Fathers," something that might well stand as the "Munro Manifesto." The girl in this first-person story looks back at herself as she enters her teens and half befriends, half persecutes a younger child named Frances who has moved into the rural Canadian community from Chicago. Invited to Frances's home, the narrator is put off balance, even slightly sickened, by the playfulness of Frances's parents, their attentions to their child and their overt demonstrations of affection. "What was this menace? Was it just that of love, or of lovingness? If that was what it was, then you would have to say that I had made its acquaintance too late."
In her own dour home, overt loving is in short supply. Emotion of all kinds is suspect. Even intellectual curiosity -- to be interested in the "why" of something not directly relevant to chores or subsistence -- is frowned upon. To be the bearer of gossip or news -- the storyteller, which, by her early teens, she aspires to be -- she has had to learn restraint. "I had learned how to do this in a way that would not get me rebuked for being sarcastic or vulgar or told that I was too smart for my own good. I had mastered a deadpan, even demure style that could make people laugh even when they thought they shouldn't and that made it hard to tell whether I was innocent or malicious."
Clearly, Munro is still drawing on the capital of those early lessons. That deadpan girl is very present in a story titled "Home," where the narrator, now an adult, returns to visit her ailing father. After her mother's death, he has remarried, to a woman named Irlma. Irlma's ancient dog, Buster, "smells of rot and river weeds" and is experiencing acute bowel trouble. In a virtuoso set-piece that could well define the art of deadpan, Munro gives Irlma a monologue in which she regales her stepdaughter with a full account of Buster's eventual bowel evacuation as she serves up ham sandwiches and coffee with cream. Somehow, the old dog's agony is rendered hilarious. But it is the guilty, suppressed laughter of the child in church, who knows very well that her elders are watching and marking her down for a caning.
One particular story from my mother's Boorowa childhood kept coming to my mind as I read Munro. My mother stayed with her grandmother, the town midwife, who, despite her calling, had a prude's distaste for the facts of the body and very little time for the questions of small girls. So when my mother asked where she came by all the newborns that appeared so regularly in her arms, she fobbed her off by telling her that she found the infants in the parsley patch. My mother says she spent weeks, waking before dawn and searching that patch, in the hopes that she might find a baby before her grandmother got there.
Reading Munro, I often feel like that little girl, my mother, shivering in her dew-drenched nightgown, determinedly searching for an elusive, valuable thing. And that thing is the secret to Munro's prose. There are no pyrotechnics in it, very little poetry. The few similes are apt but not dazzlingly so. There is suspense, but it is contrived without resort to any obvious devices. In short, Munro is the illusionist whose trick can never be exposed. And that is because there is no smoke, there are no mirrors. Munro really does know magic: how to summon the spirits and the emotions that animate our lives. ·
Geraldine Brooks is the author, most recently, of "March," which won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.