A goodreads statistic. Exactly one of my friends on that site has made a comment about this book – and she hasn’t read it yet.
Alice Munro is a Nobel Prize winner.
She is no Chekhov.
Despite that, I think her books will stand the test of time, but they are not easy things to review. There is nothing to pillory. There is no technique to make her temporarily modern. I don’t spot anything in her style that will prematurely date her, in the way I feel Welty’s does to hers. And she has that sameness about her, in style, in ambition, in content, in method, which means to review one book is to judge them all.
Nonetheless, one could argue this book, Lives of Girls and Women, does – just – the teensiest bit break the mould. Which is because although one could quibble about calling it Munro’s ‘novel’, as there is little to distinguish it from some of her collections of stories – a chapter title instead of a story title, to be sure – it does have a cohesiveness that elevates it. One can imagine that Munro worked so very hard on this that she said never again. However much of a slog short stories might be, this must have been on another level again.
This absolutely captures the loneliness of being a rebellious independent thinking youngster in an unsympathetic environment. Specifically one growing up in poverty in the Canadian rural backblocks. Specifically one assumes a good deal of Alice Munro to be found in it. But the awkward bright girl trying to survive the best she can resonates with anybody, I imagine, who hasn’t been Naomi, her some-time friend who abandons her for the allure of baby showers and the other trappings enforced (if by themselves) on females.
Del comes close to crossing over to that – let me call it dark – side and indeed she lets falling in love ruin her scholarship chances. Her chances, in other words, to escape the grindingly soulless life which has so far been hers. It isn’t a happy ending, but it is a strong one.
In some of Munro’s later work, I’ve felt the imposition of a political correctness about male-female relationships. Here there is none of that. Not one moment where one feels political correctness takes the place of honesty. I guess these days the scene where Del (a school girl) is taken to a secret place by a middle-aged man who masturbates rather ferociously in front of her could not be presented in the way in which it is here, that it to say, as something that isn’t damaging to her. It brought to mind Germaine Greer telling a group of school kids recently (I was in the audience) that the penis isn’t a weapon. It isn’t an AK47. We shouldn’t behave like it is this instrument of destruction. I get the impression that Alice Munro would have said ‘right on, sister’.