The View From Castle Rock by Alice Munro

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The Independent Culture

How to talk critically about Alice Munro now that the terms of the debate are so widely established, and by such distinguished voices? The 75-year-old Canadian is the pre-eminent master of the short story; Jonathan Franzen says her finely crafted, spare studies of everyday life - so often narrated by women who, like her, are native to rural Canada - make her "the best fiction writer working now in north America". Time magazine wonders aloud why she has not won the Nobel.

These facts are lent sharper focus by Munro's recent talk of retirement; her 13th collection, The View from Castle Rock, could be her last. This book tells the episodic history of Munro's family, from pioneer ancestors who left the Presbyterian, wind-blasted Scottish borders to Munro's own girlhood in rural Ontario. It's a mixture, then, of archival fact and fictive imagining; a first for this author. Nevertheless, often here the essential subject matter - family, love, half-glimpsed metaphysical yearnings - is familiar, and so is the peerless style. That, and the possibility that this book could conclude the oeuvre, seem naturally to raise one question: just why is Munro so good?

For all that, one half of Castle Rock is better than the other, because Part I - the story pre-Munro - is bedevilled by an awkward narrative structure. It's apparent from the first piece, "No Advantages", about Munro's Ettrick valley ancestor William Laidlaw, who appears in the archives as a runner of mythical prowess. The piece is written in an essayistic first person - "as far as I know, my ancestors were Ettrick shepherds" - which dips in and out of view, meaning it sometimes sounds like historical non-fiction, sometimes like a story. In fact, as Munro states, it is a little of both; but here the dual form seems ungainly, unable to take flight. Elsewhere the first-person voice retreats, and we see glimpses of Munro's marvellous ability for character - in for instance, "The View from Castle Rock", in which harassed young mother Agnes inwardly laments her facial birthmark.

But it's in Part II, "Home", that Munro is at full force. Now she is her own subject, and here are stories replete with craftsmanship. They are complex, burdened by no agenda other than that of truthful representation. "Lying Under the Apple Tree" is a recollection of a tentative relationship with a boy from a poorer family who, the young Munro notices, do not use bread-and-butter plates. "Hired Girl" sees her take a summer job with the rich Montjoys, where she is upbraided for reading while she eats her dinner alone at the servant's table.

It's all delivered via her spare, wonderful prose; a man's house with its blinds drawn "like the man himself had a look of bad temper". The perfunctory Mrs Montjoy has a smile that is like "a signal for a smile, when the occasion did not warrant the real thing".

In the final story here, an adult Munro searches for a local crypt and faces a breast cancer scare. Stories, and meaning, seem to coalesce as she considers her own mortality and the sparse beauty of the Ontario landscape, and we get a moving remembrance of childhood that comes, again, via little details: the winter breath of cows, the "sour wooden drainboards", a seashell that hissed like the sea when she held it to her ear.

It's in that style - one that depends on the articulation of free-floating, unprogrammatic detail, like experience broken down into its constituent parts - that Munro's claim to greatness resides. That's because in it we find a prose that manages something profound (and Chekhovian): to capture the grammar of the perceiving consciousness, to wonder restlessly between apprehensions just as the mind does. As long as Munro has command of this, talk of retirement is a cause for sadness.