The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro

I hadn’t even heard of Alice Munro until a few weeks ago when a friend on my online book group suggested this as our June read. Alice Munro? Who is this woman? were my thoughts, so I googled, and found out that apparently everyone apart from me thought she was wonderful and she won the Booker International Prize in 2009. To be fair, it’s not really my fault that I had no idea who Alice Munro was, because in my English department at university if the words ‘Canadian’ or ‘American’ were placed in front of the word ‘Literature’, there were sharp intakes of breath all round and mutterings about oxymorons. So while I have dabbled in Margaret Atwood and Edith Wharton and Henry James and all the other usual suspects from across the pond, Alice Munro had slipped under my radar. And what a tragedy, because I wish that I had read everything she has ever written.

But I haven’t and so I am only able to talk about her and her work in regards to this book, which I have been reliably informed isn’t an accurate representation of her usual oeuvre. This is because it’s very biographical/autobiographical as it’s about her and previous generations of her family, but that’s not even really biography because she doesn’t actually know much about her Scottish ancestors who came over on a boat in the early 1800s.  So, she uses real people and real places and as much information as she can to construct lives and feelings and actions of people she is descended from and clearly wants to be able to bring to life again on the page. Though there necessarily has to be a fair whack of artistic licence when it comes to portraying these two hundred years dead ancestors, it doesn’t matter, because by the time you’ve started reading about them and caring about them and finding the way they lived and who they loved and the decisions they made fascinating and sad and moving, you don’t remember or even care that they’re Alice Munro’s great-great-grandparents and even though this is kind of real it’s also kind of not. It’s like Titanic, I suppose. We know someone like Rose and someone like Jack probably existed and went down with the ship, but whether they got together and yelled ‘I’m the King of the World!’ and then did some kissing on the ship’s prow doesn’t really come into it anymore by the time you’re sobbing, or shouting at Rose to stop singing and start swimming, whichever is your preference when watching this dire film.

If I could sum it up in a word, I’d say I’d found it all rather elegiac, especially the latter section of the collection, where the stories are about Alice’s grandparents, parents and herself, and so the people become accessible and there is not as much artistic licence, and the mistakes and regrets and tragedies and sheer drudgery that makes up their lives in windswept rural Canada are even more moving and absorbing. I got the sense that Munro was using this book as a way to find out more about herself, where she had come from, and where she had gone wrong. It was mournful but not depressing; these are people resigned to their lives and while aware that they could have, or should have, maybe, had more, they don’t pine for it. They get on with things. They marry, reproduce, work hard, die, and leave a trail behind them that Alice Munro has picked up and pieced together and written a remarkable string of connected stories that bring 18th and 19th century Scotland and 19th and 20th century Canada alive on the page. This book is as much about Alice Munro’s family as it is the tenacity of the human spirit throughout the ages, and it is wonderful.

I particularly enjoyed the fact that Alice Munro is directly related to James Hogg, of ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ fame; this book is terrific for understanding the predestination beliefs of hard core Scottish Presbyterians in the 18th century, many of whom Alice Munro can count as her ancestors and whom she describes in a couple of early stories. I love the attitude of ‘we’re saved, so we can do what we want’. Not quite the point Jesus had in mind, I suspect.

Anyway, I digress…read these stories, they will blow you away. I’m now determined to track down all her other stories and devour them as quickly as I can!!! You can get your own copy here.