Books: Recipes for repression in the well-ordered household
The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro Chatto & Windus, pounds 14.99, 340pp: Liz Jensen wishes that this buttoned-up, neatly-ironed queen of the quiet domestic trauma would learn to let her hair down once in a while
Saturday 09 January 1999
In many of the stories, Munro presents time-lapse snapshots of women in relationships, families and proxy families, their decay charted across decades. Her clinical observation of this bio-degradation is both wise and acute. But the sharpness of the stories - and the characters who inhabit them - is blunted by a creeping sameness.
Thoughts of culpability and powerlessness evaporate and condense again in the minds of her protagonists, mostly women on the margins of action, like the young wife who takes a part-time job looking after an incapacitated old man and learns of his possible involvement in the dark past of a distant island. But the story deliberately suffocates the details of the ancient atrocity, and the truth ends up smoothed over by female collusion. The Law of Literary Understatement, which Munro is rightly revered for adhering to, decrees that less is always more. Here, though, it feels like less.
The almost novella-length title story begins in a museum in the Canadian town of Walley. Alongside butter churns and horse-harnesses lies a box of instruments dredged from the watery grave of Mr Willens, an optician whose car plunged into the Peregrine River in 1951. The box contains an ophthalmoscope - a relic which becomes a metaphor for the multi-lensed narrative of how the optician met his fate. Munro reveals the story of his mysterious death first through the eyes of three boys who see his hand apparently waving from his sinking car, and then from the point of view of Enid, who nurses the dying, bitter wife of the man who may have killed him. You fear that Enid will fail to confront the possible-probable murderer, and love him instead. But the idea is amorphous, and one is left gasping for something solid. And thinking petulantly, after 70-odd pages, is that it?
In "Before the Change", Munro comes the closest to finally having herself a ball. When a young woman assists her doctor father in performing an abortion, "out of the womb now came plops of wine jelly, and blood, and somewhere in there the foetus... a tiny plastic doll as negligible as a fingernail". Here the writing suddenly buzzes with energy and comes alive, so that when the woman reveals her secret, there is true pathos, humour and surprise.
Like a set of marks traced into the sand of a beach, The Love of a Good Woman contains a delicate genre of writing which leaves only a faint, homoeopathically thin imprint of itself behind before vanishing. This is both the glory and the failure of this collection. You can see that life is probably like this, but you'd rather it were not. By the end, Munro's understated truths left me hungry, and craving the nourishment of lies.
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