Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro - book review: Tales of a fractured coming of age in Jubilee, Ontario

It's more a composite novel or story cycle than a unified novel, but individual sections lack the taut obliquity of Munro's adeptly plotted short stories.

Aunt Moira's voice, "telling things at leisure, would spread out over the day, over the yard, like black oil". Alice Munro's novel was first published in 1971: thereafter she never repeated the experiment of "telling things at leisure" in the expansive form of long fiction. The story of Del Jordan, growing up in the familiar Ontario of Alice Munro's childhood, is a Bildungsroman, a fictional memoir and portrait of the artist as a young woman, "highly strung, erratic, badly brought up... a borderline case". From the first, Del wants out. In Jubilee in the 1940s, female lives are burdened and narrow.

The novel is episodic and loquacious, especially the account of adolescence in the second half. It's more a composite novel or story cycle than a unified novel – but individual sections lack the taut obliquity of Munro's adeptly plotted short stories.

The quality of the writing, of course, is often superb. Its dense weave of colour and texture offers manifold witty surprises and the poetry of place that is the hallmark of Munro's stories. The opening page reveals the first of a series of bizarre, poignant characterisations: "We spent days along the Wawanash River, helping Uncle Benny fish." The deliquescence of the swampy area to which Uncle Benny has adapted takes us into the territory of piscatory eclogue, where suffering, subsistence and beauty mingle. Del stumbles upon a dead cow on the river bank: its eye has a "sheen like silk and a reddish gleam... [an] orange stuffed in a black silk stocking".

The estranged, viscerally curious girl, patrolling "like an exile or spy", is balefully aware of the kind of woman she doesn't aspire to be. Marriage: no. Children: no. Spinsterhood: better, but no. It's the genius of Munro to capture the fugitive sensibility of childhood, its wordless epiphanies. Del intuits "something in the room like the downflash of a wing or knife". We sense that rage might lead her into the feral violence of the teenage Madeleine, whom Uncle Benny rashly marries overnight. "Stories of Madeleine were being passed up and down... she had thrown the kettle out of the window because there was no water in it. She had taken the scissors and cut up his green suit."

Madeleine is the kind of minor character, anomalous and inarticulate, who might have been a central mover in a Munro short story. Here, where minor characterisations tend towards the quasi-allegorical, she simply vanishes. Ultimately, Del will also decamp, carrying the paradox of a voracious nostalgic allegiance, and will become the compulsive chronicler of her abandoned home.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in