My reading list for July included a self-set challenge to read something by a Canadian – other than Margaret Atwood, Guy Gavriel Kay and Lucy M Montgomery – because I know nothing whatsoever about the country or its writers. So I’ve started with Runaway, a collection of short stories by Alice Munro, since she was born in July (1931), but the book also fits my aim of reading more short stories, a genre I am not really familiar with. As you can see, I am still determined to try and take my reading in new directions this year.
Munro writes precise, spare prose where there are no unnecessary descriptions or superfluous emotions. Her writing reminded me of an Edward Hopper painting, with people in a domestic landscape, engaged in everyday tasks, yet somehow disconnected from the world around them. There’s an air of sadness and slight mystery about these stories, with their failed relationships and lost opportunities. Munro describes moments in time, moments in life. Things happen, decisions are made almost by default, and life drifts on, but there are no explanations, no reasons given, and no judgements made. People are as they are, and life is as it is, and that is how Munro tells it.
The book takes its title from the first of the eight tales in the collection, and to start with I wondered why Munro had selected this as her main title, but as I read on I could see how apt it is, since so many of the men and women within these pages are bidding to escape from something – parents, lovers, spouses, children, life in small-minded small towns, illness, themselves. There are journeys (physical and emotional), moves and re-inventions of self, but despite their travels no-one arrives at a destination, and nothing is ever fully resolved, perhaps because these people never know what it is they want from life, or if they do know they refuse to acknowledge it.
Munro’s stories are longer than most other short stories I’ve read, and she packs so much in that they could almost be short novels, or novellas, especially the three about Juliet, which I loved. I have to admit that for several pages I was a bit uncertain about the first tale (‘Runaway’) but by the time I met Juliet I was hooked on Munro’s writing, and read on and on, although I’m inclined to think short stories are best appreciated when they are read on their own, one at a time.
In ‘Chance’ Juliet travels to the man she will live with, the account interspersed with an earlier journey when she first meets him. In ‘Soon’ she takes her baby daughter Penelope to visit her parents at her childhood home. And in ‘Silence’ she tries to understand why Penelope has left home without a word and never returned. I loved this three stories, and they way they built, piece by piece, to give a picture. From the beginning ‘Chance’ reels you in.
Halfway through June, in 1965, the term at Torrance House is over, Juliet has not been offered a permanent job – the teacher she replaced has recovered – and she should be on her way home. But she is taking what she has described as a little detour. A little detour to see a friend up the coast.
The friend is the man she met on a train, who has remembered her first name, and where she works, and has written to her at the school, ending with the words:
I often think of you.I often think of you
I often think of you zzzzzz
Who could resist a letter like that? Not Juliet, that’s for sure. When she arrives at his home in Whale Bay, on the west coast of Canada ‘somewhere north of Vancouver’, nothing is quite as she expects, but she never returns home from the ‘little detour’.
In ‘Soon’ she visits her parents in the small town where she has grew up, where people are shocked that she is ‘living in sin’ with Eric, and that they have a child. Again, Juliet finds that nothing – and no-one – is quite as she remembers. There is the slightly sinister Irene, who has come to help. Her father, a one-time teacher turned market gardener, seems less of a man than he was, while her beautiful, ailing mother is like a spoilt, petulant child, whose mantra when things get too bad is that ‘soon’ she’ll see Juliet. But Juliet is unable to offer the support her mother needs, or to decide whether home is with her parents or with Eric.
But she had not protected Sara. When Sara had said, soon I’ll see Juliet, Juliet had found no reply. Could it not have been managed? Why should it have been so difficult? Just to say yes. To Sara it would have meant so much – to herself, surely, so little. But she had turned away, she had carried the tray to the kitchen, and there she washed and dried the cups and also the glass that had held grape soda. She had put everything away.
It’s as if she’s put her past life away as well, unable to cope with the memories or changes. Then, in ‘Silence’, she is the one who is left waiting, hoping that soon her daughter will contact her again. She has arranged to meet Penelope at the Spiritual Balance Centre, but when she arrives the girl has gone and a woman tells her Penelope went to them in ‘great hunger’ because she had been spiritually starved at home.
For a few years a card arrives on Penelope’s own birthday – then nothing. But each time she moves house she takes her daughter’s possessions with her, bundled up in a rubbish bag. She even meets an old school-friend of Penelope, who has met her, changed beyond recognition.
She keeps on hoping for a word from Penelope, but not in any strenuous way. She hopes as people who know better hope for undeserved blessings, spontaneous remissions, things of that sort.
It was the Canadian Book Challenge http://www.bookmineset.blogspot.ca/ which prompted me to search out some Canadian authors (helped by Claire at http://thecaptivereader.wordpress.com) and I was just going to read, but not join in, but I’ve got a year to read 13 books, and I’ve amassed a little collection which will take me to the half-way point, so maybe I’ll give this challenge a whirl.