I’ve just finished ‘The View from Castle Rock’ by Alice Munro and found it a most intriguing and indeed almost perplexing read. The book is a series of short stories based on the anecdotes and the archival evidence that Munro has uncovered relating to her family, reaching back to its early days in the dour Scottish landscape of the late 18th century where life was harsh, religion was paramount and the people still believed in fairies. The story that gives its name to the whole collection tells the story of the intrepid Munro ancestors who sailed across the Atlantic to Canada in the hope of a more prosperous life. The guiding force behind the emigration is Old James, whose dreams of distant lands have fuelled his fantasies for many years before finally the voyage is undertaken. He brings with him two sons, Andrew and Walter, and a rather strange and backward daughter, Mary. Andrew brings his pregnant wife, Agnes, an unsympathetic character, materially minded, without tenderness and utterly scornful of anything that does not fit her own way of thinking, and his small son, James, who is the light of Mary’s life. This disparate group settles into the dislocation of a sea journey with its discomforts and unexpected delights and Munro conjures up the scenes with breathtaking authenticity and vivacity. Her powers of evocation are really quite amazing, and it was only when I was halfway through that I caught myself wondering whether anything was ever going to happen in this story.
Generally, journeys in stories are weighed down with symbolic meaning. The ordeals that travelers have to endure, the challenges they face, the discomforts they suffer, all add up to a paradigm of life itself, only concentrated on the troublesome business of shifting geographically from A to B. But there’s none of this in Munro’s account; on the one hand she is constrained by the distance of time and the actuality of historical facts. She knows her ancestors sailed, and arrived safely, and much as she promises the reader an imaginative recreation of her family story, she is also aware of wanting to stay within ‘the outline of a true narrative.’ This unusual compromise leads to a narrative that adheres very tightly to an unchanging present: the characters travel overseas without becoming caught up in any significant transformations. Walter finds his horizons enlarged a little thanks to a friendship he develops on the boat; Mary develops a little more self-confidence; Agnes remains her rather brutal, blunt-edged self. Only Old James manages the kind of literary transition beloved of the journey story: having been the driving force to leave his homeland, his incarceration on the boat finds him swapping his tales of venturing forth for tales of homesick nostalgia. But in this respect he remains resolutely someone who can only truly exist in a fantasy location.
What happens to the family, the tragedies and the triumphs, the politics and the romance, all happen outside the framework of the story itself, although Munro catches us up at the end of the tale with an overview of her ancestor’s lives. The journey, then, becomes a story that happens almost within parenthesis, a three month long pause in their real lives, although it is a moment that is wholly decisive for their destinies. I found this story fascinating and frustrating at the same time. Fascinating because Munro is such a talented, confident writer; it’s almost like being present at a masterclass in writing craft; but frustrating because I wanted to interpret something out of it, some underlying story that held truth about experience, traveling, abandoning the homeland in favour of the unknown. But the project of hovering between a memoir and fiction binds and limits Munro in unexpected narrative places. Don’t get me wrong – this very feature is one of the most interesting qualities of the writing. I will most certainly be reading the rest of the book now, not only to watch the unfolding story of further generations, but to see how Munro tackles the telling of it.
Cross-posted at A Curious Singularity