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|