Saturday, June 9, 2007

Nine Jewels

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro. Vintage Books USA, 2001. 336 pages. ISBN 9780375727436

A collection of nine short stories about the lives of Canadian women, memory’s power, the heart’s survival, imperfect love.

With a few strokes, Alice Munro creates specific internal worlds, familiar yet unique. Piercingly perceptive observations of the way people think and act and feel are uttered in simple language.

“Young husbands were stern, in those days. Just a short time before, they had been suitors, almost figures of fun, knock-kneed and desperate in their sexual agonies. Now, bedded down, they turned resolute and disapproving. Off to work every morning, lean-shaven, youthful necks in knotted ties, days spent in unknown labors, home again at suppertime to take a critical glance at the evening meal and to shake out the newspaper, hold it between themselves and the muddle of the kitchen, the ailments and emotions, the babies.” (from “What is Remembered”)

I read this collection shortly after it first came out in 2001 but picked up the book again this spring because the new film, Away from Her, is getting great reviews. The film, directed by young actress Sarah Polley, (have you seen her in The Sweet Hereafter? She sings, too!) is based on Munro’s short story, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” the final story in this book.

“Bear” describes the last chapters of Fiona, a dynamic and intelligent woman losing her sense of the past and of Grant, her loving, but casually unfaithful husband. When Grant plans and carries out an act of tremendous and arguably selfless love, I was satisfied by his comeuppance (or is it another rationalized betrayal?) but also moved by the continuing mystery of what we will do for love.

Something fascinating happens in the last few lines of the story – the proper names drop away into an anonymous “he,” mimicking the processes of Fiona’s slipping mind. The differences between the men are collapsed; the love becomes borderless.

Just as often as she creates a coincidence or an ironic conclusion worthy of O. Henry, Alice Munro will make a beautiful situation that seems without any obvious place in the narrative arc. Later, I’ll realize how the meandering path has been carefully designed, each detail telling. Each facet of the jewels in this collection has been polished for maximum brilliance.

Of the drapes her husband hangs after her cancer diagnosis, Jinny, in “Floating Bridge” reflects, “she knew now that there comes a time when ugly and beautiful serve pretty much the same purpose, when anything you look at is just a peg to hang the unruly sensations of your body on, and the bits and pieces of your mind.”

In the title story, a cruel trick played by two young girls on one girl’s simple housekeeper, is turned on itself in a gratifying way. In less deft hands, this ironic conclusion could have felt leaden and vengeful. But Munro gives one of the girls this reflection: “It was the whole twist of consequence that dismayed her—it seemed fantastical, but dull. Also insulting, like some sort of joke or inept warning, trying it get its hooks in her.” This kind of doubling back, to look at the oddness of fate and human behavior, keeps me in the faith of the story’s world. Strange twists do occur in this big old world, Munro reminds us. We believe her.

(There was one Munro story, not in this collection, so it’s not really fair of me to mention, that pushed the neatness of coincidence beyond palatable. I will mention it, though, because it shows how difficult it is to tread this tightrope of irony. And because this is my review, on my blog, goddammit. In “Tricks,” from the 2004 collection Runaway, a mentally-disabled twin makes a casual gesture that a woman misconstrues as rejection from his brother. Her entire life is changed by a device creaks like an antiquated machine. But that is another book.)

Here, in this masterful collection filled with pleasure and wonder, Munro creates stories where the past stirs the passions of the present into swirls sometimes murky, sometimes clarified.

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