"All love is ambivalent," said the playwright Tony Kushner, "and ambivalence kills." The tales in Alice Munro's The View from Castle Rock are full of that sentiment.
This 13th collection, which the 75-year-old Munro has said will be her last, is a departure in that the stories aren't wholly fictional. They're based on what Munro imagines to be the experiences of the Laidlaw family, her father's people, who emigrated from a Scottish parish that "possesses no advantages" to find an only marginally less hardscrabble existence in Canada. Thus, some of the stories have an unfinished feel about them—the saga of the Laidlaws continues, after all. Though Munro begins her tales with a jovial account of her ancestor Will O'Phaup, most of the Laidlaws tend to be gruff, unsentimental and withholding. Love is not spoken of. Spouses stay together out of obligation and necessity, children are not cosseted, parenthood is another responsibility in a long, tiring string of duties. By the time Munro, or a version of herself, shows up, the Laidlaws are still poor and unimportant, and ambivalence rules.
Munro's narrator is a girl much like the young heroines of her short stories: restless, "too smart for her own good" and a little self-absorbed. Her quiet and dependable father is also capable of brutality; he was a fur trapper, then ran a fur farm. He slaughtered horses to feed the foxes he harvested, and beat his daughter with a belt. Her mother sells those furs at what passes in their world for a ritzy hotel; she then succumbs to Parkinson's, a disease so rare and misunderstood that her care by her family was "cold, impatient, untender." Munro describes them all with her usual lucidity and unerring eye for detail and character. Even her description of the topography of Southern Ontario is gorgeous. The View from Castle Rock is a sad and beautifully written book.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York. Copyright 2006 BookPage Reviews.
Library Journal Reviews 2006 July #1
Munro's newest story collection gracefully reconstructs her family history. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2006 October #1
With this new collection, Munro (Runaway ) more than lives up to her reputation as a master of short fiction. In 12 exquisitely constructed tales, she draws on family lore and letters to interpret the history of her Laidlaw relatives, a tough bunch from ScotlandĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s Ettrick Valley that eventually emigrated to the New World. The title story, set in 1818, details a transatlantic voyage undertaken by six Laidlaws for whom ocean sailing is a totally new experience. Their struggles in adjusting to shipboard life anticipate challenges ahead in America as their fears and hopes culminate in the arrival of baby Isabel, all her life to be known as one Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“born at sea.Ă˘â‚¬Âť In Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“No Advantages,Ă˘â‚¬Âť a modern-day narratorĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s visit to Ettrick reveals what the family gained (and perhaps lost) by leaving the legend-haunted valley, while other stories explore how the harsh realities of wilderness pioneering affect several generations. All the narratives exhibit MunroĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s keen eye for realistic details and her ability to illuminate the depths of seemingly mundane lives and relationships. Highly recommended.Ă˘â‚¬"Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA[Page 64]. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Reviewed by Sigrid Nunez.
Ten collections of stories and one novel have made Alice Munro one of the most praised fiction writers of our time. In The View from Castle Rock her full range of gifts is on display: indelible characters, deep insights about human behavior and relationships, vibrant prose, and seductive, suspenseful storytelling.
Munro, in a foreword, tells how, a decade ago, she began looking into her family history, going all the way back to 18th-century Scotland. This material eventually became the stories presented here in part 1, "No Advantages." Munro also worked on "a special set of stories," none of which she included in previous collections, because they were "rather more personal than the other stories I had written." They now appear here in part 2, "Home." With both parts, Munro says, she has had a free hand with invention.
Munro has used personal material in her fiction before, but at 75, she has given us something much closer to autobiography. Much of the book concerns people who have died, and places and ways of life that no longer exist or have been completely transformed, and though Munro is temperamentally unsentimental the mood is often elegiac.
One difficulty that can arise with this kind of hybrid work is that the reader is likely to be distracted by the itch to know whether an event really occurred, or how much has been made up or embellished. In the title story, the reader is explicitly told that almost everything has been invented, and this enthralling multilayered narrative about an early 19th-century Scottish family's voyage to the New World is the high point of the collection. On the other hand, "What Do You Want to Know For?" at the heart of which is an account of a cancer scare Munro experienced, reads like pure memoir and seems not only thin by comparison but insufficiently imagined as a short story.
Perhaps none of the stories here is quite up to the mastery of earlier Munro stories such as "The Beggar Maid" or "The Albanian Virgin." But getting this close to the core of the girl who would become the master is a privilege and a pleasure not to be missed. And reliably as ever when the subject is human experience, Munro's storiesĂ˘â‚¬"whatever the proportions of fiction and factĂ˘â‚¬"always bring us the truth. (Nov.)
Sigrid Nunez's most recent novel, The Last of Her Kind, will be published in paperback by Picador in December.[Page 42]. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.