Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro
“A novel”, it says boldly on the front cover. The thing about Alice Munro is that she only writes short stories, so this is meant to be some sort of unique selling point; but the discrete chapters and the tone of the writing suggest a collection of interlinked short stories with the same narrator. Its form, however, is not the most interesting thing about it: that, of course, is the writing.
This is Munro’s second book, published in 1971 and reprinted a few times since then, but it is clear that she already has complete tonal command of her material. Most of it is based on the small Canadian town of Jubilee, Ontario, a place of mildly stifling gentility which provides her with a rich soil in which she can grow her stories. The book opens about midway through the second world war, but there are only the scantest references to locate us in time.
The point for Munro is to look at the everyday. There is a character called Uncle Craig who has been writing a history of the county and his family. Its dullness, you gather even before you read a representative paragraph, is monumental. “He did not ask for anybody in the family to have done anything more interesting, or scandalous, than to marry a Roman Catholic (the woman’s religion noted in red ink below her name); indeed, it would have thrown his whole record off balance if it had.” Uncle Craig dies suddenly of a heart attack, and his sisters bequeath the manuscript to the narrator, Del (a reasonably straightforward stand-in for Munro herself). They suggest that, as he “had the gift”, maybe she could learn to copy his style. (“He could get everything in and still make it read smooth.”) Del’s, or Munro’s, reaction comes in one short one-sentence paragraph: “They were talking to somebody who believed that the only duty of a writer is to produce a masterpiece.”
It is a remarkable moment not only of quiet comedy (by this stage we have seen some of Uncle Craig’s prose), but of self-declaration. This part of the world, Munro is saying, is what I’m going to be writing about; but she is also aware that she is restricting herself to a small canvas - that she is a miniaturist. (This is one of the reasons you might find yourself bridling at the over-assertive declaration that this is a novel; indeed, it has not always been described as such.) And at the same time, she is both mocking and taking seriously Del’s idea of what a writer’s duty is. It is, in its muted way, extremely self-confident.
Her talent – which is such that she was awarded the Nobel in 2013, the Swedish Academy having decided that Munro had fulfilled Del’s expectations – lies in her fine understatement. In Jubilee, we learn early on, it is considered not only seemly but important not to stand out from the crowd by virtue of your achievements (a certain degree of eccentricity is acceptable, mainly because it gives people something to talk about). To accept a scholarship is not on; to be offered one and turn it down, however, is praiseworthy – and crucial, if you are a woman.
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