Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

"The love of a good woman" by Alice Munro (Vintage, 1998)

I've never read an Alice Munro book before, though I've liked "The Barton Bus" for a while. This book starts with the title story, a novella (77 pages). 3 boys find a dead body in the river. When they go home for a meal they don't mention it at first. We're told how their behaviour in the country differs from how they behave in the town, and it's different again from what they're like at home. We learn about their families in a domestic context

His five-year-old brother was sitting in place at the table, banging his knife and fork up and down and yelling, "Want some service. Want some service."
He got that from their father, who did it for a joke.
Bud passed by his brother's chair and said quietly, "Look. She's putting lumps in the mashed potatoes again."
He had his brother convinced that lumps were something you added, like raisins to rice pudding, from a supply in the cupboard (p.18)

We meet Bud's image-conscious sisters, Cece's violent father, and Jimmy's crippled father, seeing how some of them are different when they're out of the house.

Years pass. We're at the deathbed of an angrily-dying woman 27 years old. We discover that appearances are more deceptive than they initially appeared.

Image creation is something that's on the mind of several characters in this book. In a later story, "Save the Reaper" a 7 year-old "looked at Eve. A flat look, a moment of conspiratorial blankness, a buried smile, that passed before there could be any need for recognition of it.
What did it mean? Only that he had begun the private work of storing and secreting, deciding on his own what should be preserved and how, and what these things were going to mean to him, in his unknown future
" (p.180)

In "Cortes Island" the main character thinks about becoming a writer - " I brought a school notebook and tried to write - did write, pages that started off authoritatively and then went dry, so that I had to tear them out and twist them up in hard punishment and put them in the garbage can I did this over and over again until I had only the notebook cover left ... I was like having a secret pregnancy and miscarriage every week"

I like "Save the Reaper". The persona uses "temporarily in abeyance" on p.148, which doesn't sound right though. We don't learn for a while the relationship between Eve and Sophie, whereas the next story tells all right from the start "Thirty years ago, a family was spending a holiday together on the east coast of Vancouver Island. A young father and mother, their two small daughters, and an older couple, the husband's parents." I like "The Children Stay" too.

In "Before the Change" Madeleine goes back to her father's house having split with her fiancé, who teaches at a Theological College. She split because her fiancé wanted her to have an abortion rather than a too-early child. She's given it away for adoption. The style's epistlatory, though the letters are never sent. She realises that her father (a doctor) performs abortions - illegal in those days. He suddenly dies. In the will there's surprisingly little money left. She thinks maybe he did the abortions for free. Then, when the housekeeper comes to collect her stuff in a big car, she assumes blackmail. Although, she finally thinks What I've been shying away from is that it could have been done for love./ For love, then. Never rule that out."

"My Mother's Dream" is from the viewpoint of someone that's unborn, then a foetus, then a baby for most of the story. One night she might have died - "I think that the outcome was not certain and that will was involved. It was up to me, I mean, to go out way or another" (p.336). At the end, an adolescent watching silly kids play in a pool she says "I would have liked for one of them to see my pale pajamas moving in the dark, and to scream out in earnest, thinking that I was a ghost." (p.340)

Stories can share details

  • "little laughs or barks, not to indicate that anything is funny but as a kind of punctuation", p.260
  • "Her giggling was a kind of punctuation of speech", p.312

She uses interjected flashbacks, one-line memories, and often has more than 3 active characters. Families figure strongly. Years pass. There's a dislocation between events and the understanding of them. Epiphanies are delayed, muted, half-expected by the characters. Readers are sometimes kept in the dark about details that all (or most) of the characters know.

On his blog, Charles E. May says "As usual in a Munro work, the story covers a long period of time and focuses on several characters - the kind of time span and character configuration that makes many reviewers call her stories 'novelistic.' However, if we read ... as a short story rather than as a novel - that is, if we read it more than once - as a language-based thematic structure rather than for plot and character configuration - we may find that it is more complex than we first assume."

I'm not used to reading long stories. There were times when I wondered whether all the twists and turns were worth it -

She had thought he was older than she was, at least as old as Brian (who was thirty, though people were apt to say he didn't act it). but as soon as he started talking to her, in this offhand, dismissive way, never quite meeting her eyes, she suspected that he was younger than he'd like to appear. Now with that flush she was sure of it.
As it turned out, he was a year younger than she was. Twenty-five.

In other places I wonder whether diminishing returns set in. On p.238 it takes 9 lines to get a suitcase from the top of a wardrobe. I noticed that one blogger on reading the title story wrote "By the end, that whole first thirty pages felt highly unnecessary", a feeling I had too.

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