Reviewed by Victoria
In 2013, Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, to put on the mantlepiece alongside her 2009 Man Booker International award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and multiple Governor General’s Literary Awards and Giller Prizes. There can’t be many more recognised authors still living, but at 83, it must be likely that Munro’s steady output will slow down. Perhaps for this reason, her second book, dating from 1971, has been reissued. The Lives of Girls and Women is billed as a novel, but you probably won’t be surprised to learn that it reads more like a collection of linked stories. What does require a moment’s pause for acknowledgement is how extraordinary her writing is, already, at this early stage in her career, and how keenly she had eyed up her place on the literary map and marked out its contours. If you’ve read any Alice Munro, The Lives of Girls and Women will feel familiar and comforting – at the same time as it feels bold, sure-footed, probing and just downright brilliant.
Del Jordan is a typical Munro protagonist, still a child when the story opens, and a wide-eyed, curious, unflinching witness to the strange atrocities committed in the adult world. Del lives with her parents and younger brother at the end of Flat’s Road, one of those melting pot roads on the furthest outskirts of town where an eclectic collection of ill-assorted neighbours mostly tend to their own craziness. Del’s father has a silver fox farm and is helped out by ‘Uncle’ Benny, their nearest neighbour and the kind of man who becomes ‘a steadfast eccentric almost before he is out of his teens.’ Uncle Benny’s house is fascinating to Del and Owen because it contains ‘a wealth of wreckage’, junk and jumble and refuse, all piled on top of each other: ‘He valued debris for its own sake and only pretended, to himself as well as to others, that he meant to get some practical use out of it.’ In this opening story, Uncle Benny decides to get himself a wife, by the alarming method of responding to a newspaper advertisement. The woman who arrives brings a neglected child with her and is every bit as dreadful as had been expected.
‘She’s a child,’ Del’s mother tells her father, after a first glimpse. ‘She’s not an idiot, that’s not why they were getting rid of her, but she is mentally deranged, maybe, or on the borderline. Well, poor Benny. She’s come to live in the right place though. She’ll fit in fine on the Flats Road!’
The tale of Uncle Benny’s unconventional bride is a wonderful introduction not just to the characters we’ll be spending time with – Del’s laid-back, undemanding father, and her thrustingly ambitious, education-obsessed mother – but to a particular time and place, before the normative effect of civilisation has reached as far as the Canadian backwaters, when people could be peculiar and still understood, or at least protected by those around them. We are also introduced to Munro’s literary landscape, its tight focus on the ordinary and everyday, accompanied by a laser-like vision that penetrates to the most shadowy recesses of hearts and minds. Munro’s is a spectacular voice: flowing, easy, relaxed, fiercely astute, effortlessly insightful.
As Del grows up we learn more about her family, including the unforgettable Uncle Craig who dies before having completed his encyclopedic project of local history: ‘He did not ask for anybody in the family to have done anything more interesting, or scandalous, than to marry a Roman Catholic…indeed, it would have thrown his whole record off balance if anybody had. It was not the individual names that were important, but the whole solid, intricate structure of lives supporting us from the past.’ Intriguingly, this project is handed on to Del as a legacy, something she must finish for the family’s sake. Del, who is quite focused on escaping her family as soon as decently possible, recognises the impossibility of such a wild dream. And yet, we can see the book we are holding in our hands is itself a vision of a solid and intricate structure of lives reaching forward from the past. Only not, it is clear, a bit like anything Uncle Craig may have written. In fact, the box of his manuscript is abandoned in the cellar by Del, which is flooded one spring, the papers destroyed. ‘I felt remorse,’ Del admits, ‘that kind of tender remorse which has on its other side a brutal, unblemished satisfaction.’
We follow Del through her teenage years, her love and hate friendship with the more worldly Naomi, her mother’s separation from her father in order to live in town and pursue more intellectual pursuits (Del’s mother is a typical Munro mother – overbearing, delusionary, strangely right in her thinking and yet destined to be ignored), and Del’s initiation into love and sex that manages to land smack in the middle of the most important exams she will ever sit, and which naturally ruins her chances of further education. If there is a theme holding this collection of stories together, beyond that of a straightforward Bildungsroman, it’s the question of what Del will do with her life in a time when things are changing fast and female destinies are opening up in unexpected ways. Del appears to destroy her future in a very stereotypical way, only of course this is Munro and so by the end of the book, Uncle Craig’s legacy seems to have returned to her. And so we must also see this book as a story of coming to writing, which is at the same time an homage to the past and its unexpectedly formative nature. It’s a beautiful, quietly thrilling book whose language is perfectly magical. I didn’t want it to end.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women (Vintage: London. 2015) 978-1784700881, 336 pp., paperback original.