Saturday, February 27, 2016

The View from Castle Rock

Alice Munro's The View from Castle Rock Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2006/2007.

Sat. Feb 27, 2016

The View from Castle Rock begins with documentation of the origins of Alice Munro's birth family, the Laidlaws, in an isolated valley in the south of Scotland. Although the book is subtitled "Stories" and there is the usual disclaimer at the front - " . . . any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental," these stories have the feel of autobiography and genealogy. In her Foreword, Munro does admit "the part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative." Why do I want to know which events really happened? Why does not knowing seem somehow disconcerting? The genealogist in me wants to dig out what is "real," what is "hard evidence." The writer in me wants to unearth the creative process of a Nobel-Prize-winning Canadian female writer who writes about so many things which interest me too. Especially the origins of story, and the link between place and person, place and personality. And the importance of that connection to place as one of the ways we necessarily learn to Know Ourselves. Compare and contrast. Similarities and differences. The scripts we learn by heart from days before we learn to read, and ever after - while we still live there with them, when we only visit, and then when we visit the graveyards and the abandoned farmyards and farmhouses. It is about time, and change, yet it is more than "the only constant is change." More than that.

I have two favourites, stories which spring to mind when I think of this book. The first, "The View from Castle Rock," because I have visited Edinburgh Castle twice, and drunk in the view across the Firth of Forth to Fife, as Rebus so often does in Ian Rankin's addictive detective stories about the city and a policeman who loves it as much as does the writer. Place, then people. The people are sojourners. Although it too changes physically, the place remains. That's why I loved the second story too, "What Do You Want to Know For?" about a man and wife driving the back roads with an ever-present geological map, the story of the place told in lines and colours.

I am always astonished when I read Alice Munro about how similar our experiences were, rural farm girl, small town, going away to city and university, marrying, unmarrying, marrying again. Although a generation apart, and settlement in my Manitoba was fifty years later. The same but different. Houses, but woodframe and shiplap as opposed to red brick. The variety of characters, but so many archetypal.

I love the restraint of Alice Munro's writing - the way she simply describes the epiphany and trusts her readers to get it. In "Lying Under the Apple Tree," when the narrator hears her boyfriend Russell calling another woman "honey," she's out / gone. No questions asked, no confrontation, no explanation. Out of there.

I also see again the blatant ageism in so many book reviews. It's as if young aspiring writers think about the previous generations, especially writers over 80, "how dare you continue to publish?" and make gratuitous comments comparing this and earlier work, usually including the words "familiar ground."

I sought out Alice Munro's Nobel Prize video, 2013. She has made up stories all her life, prompted in the beginning by a discontent with the existing fictional landscape, specifically with the plot, the denouement, in Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. She wanted a different ending for her heroines, for her own tales of the lives of girls and women. She has been re-creating the narrative for our land and ourselves all her writing life.

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