Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro

My first book of 2014 was intended to start me out on the path I intend to follow this year.  I have decided that I need to read more short fiction - especially more collections of short fiction - and what better place to start than with Alice Munro?  Early in 2012 I read the title story of this collection (and recorded a few thoughts here).  But the story read in context of the whole collection becomes richer, more nuanced, even more powerful.

The View from Castle Rock is a book that defies categorisation; it sits on its own with elements of memoir, short fiction, and the novel weaving in and out.  After years researching her family history, Alice Munro found herself fascinated by the people in her past.  The stories in the first half of the book are her imagined histories of these ancestors who emigrated from Scotland in the early nineteenth-century to the area now known as Alice Munro Country.  In the second half of the book she writes about the family she knows, about her parents, her relatives and herself.

I found a lot in this book that resonated with me, especially in the latter stories.  As the descendent of those same Presbyterian Scots who emigrated to the area just a county or two south, a generation or two later than her ancestors I saw reflections of my own family history in more than one story.  But the unique ability of Alice Munro to create characters with such humanity, such depth, such truth, without resorting to cliche or sentimentality is astounding.  They are characters who stick with me.  I find myself thinking of them long after closing the book, remembering the way Aunt Charlie sat at the sewing machine, or the way Russell walked when he carried his trombone, the light on the apple blossoms and the feeling of swimming beside the boathouse on Georgian Bay.  She writes about herself in such a disarming manner - she seems to have such clarity about how it felt to have been herself so many years ago, for I recognise the truth of her discomfort, her inability to know what to say at the right moment, her hesitations, her secret desires.

I am looking forward to reading more Alice Munro this year, along with a few other collections by Diane Schoemperlen and Margaret Laurence and Lisa Moore and Mavis Gallant.

Alice Munro photo credit: Paul Hawthorne/Canadian Press


  1. I myself really need to read more shot fiction.

    I think that it is really an intriguing idea to go back and write fictional but well thought out stories about ones supposed ancestors. Sometimes I wonder about what my fore-bearers experienced. This sounds like a very worthwhile read.

    1. I enjoyed the second half of the book more than the first exactly because of the obvious fictionalisation of the lives of her ancestors. I had some discomfort with her imagining the details of real people -which I realise doesn't make a lot of sense, because clearly she was doing the same with the people in the second half of the book too. It's my general discomfort with the whole idea of historical fiction of real people. I have a hard time suspending my disbelief and rarely find that kind of writing satisfying.

  2. I'm doing the same thing! I was thinking about reading one short story a week this year (still trying to see if I should do that or relax it to 2 per month) and I started with Alice Munro :-) I am also looking forward to reading more of her. I remember this collection...I may have read one story from it, years ago. Immigration stories fascinate me so I will look this up. How wonderful that you can see some of your own family history in these stories!

    1. I look forward to hearing about the short stories you read this year, Cecilia. It is so great to see so many people being reminded of, or being introduced to Alice Munro since her Nobel win.


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