1998 Giller prizewinning The Love of a Good Woman
is Alice Munro's eighth short-story collection, not counting the Selected Stories.
Its eight stories (one reprinted from Saturday Night
and five others from The New Yorker)
constitute a manifesto of love as obsession, disturbing dream, hankering, violent possession, and commodity, as they move forward and back within the field of human possibilities, frequently branching into dreamscapes, and toward epiphany.
Alice Munro's fictional works are constructed according to the principle of collage: discontinuous, seemingly anomalous time sequences, moods, actions, events, and points of view are juxtaposed, establishing spatial and thematic connections among disjointed narrative segments. Their surface realism serves often as a thin veil for an alternate reality, a merging of the rational and mysterious worlds. Their texture is composed through precise strokes and concentrations of imagery, and approach free-verse form in their escape from the constraints of form.
Set in a small town of Walley, the title-story, "The Love of a Good Woman" (ambiguous in context), opens with a documenting of the contents of a small museum: photos, butter churns, horse harnesses, an old dentist's chair, an apple peeler, the "pretty little porcelain-and-glass insulators" used on telegraph poles, and a red box that once belonged to Dr. D.M. Willens and that contains optometry instruments. The good doctor, we learn, had drowned in the Peregrine River in 1951.
The prologue sets the tone by unsettling: the mention of angles, "a dark sort of mirror," and what can be seen under paint, suggests that perception itself is not a settled thing.
The story then branches into four disparate sections. "Jutland" takes us back to the early Spring of 1951, when three young boys discover Dr. Willens' corpse in his car submerged in the river. "Heart Failure" shifts the focus from the boys' squalid family backgrounds to what seems to be an entirely different and disturbingly dream-like storyline involving Enid, a nurse who ministers to a young mother dying of a rare kidney disease (Mrs. Quinn). At one time, Enid had been in love with her patient's husband. "Mistake" replays the actual circumstances of Dr. Willens' death and disposal in the river and casts a new light on all the principal characters. The final part, "Lies", narrates the death of Mrs. Quinn. Here Enid's notebook serves as an intertext. Feeling a bond "like love but beyond love" with Rupert, she becomes obsessed with discovering the truth of his role in the incident and disburdening him of guilt.
The story ends, in an almost still moment by the river, with Enid's having lost sight of Rupert in the dark. Rather than definitive closure, we have an enticement to speculate on the aftermath, for it becomes obvious that the four sections constitute four planes of the same fiction which moves back and forth between the fictional imaginary and the fictional real. We could easily reread the story back to front, or start in the middle and wander in either direction, for Munro's segmented narrative connects everything, even the apparent diversions, on the level of a powerful, though not fully explicable, experience.
In this collection, even the most conventional stories, "Save The Reaper" (about a grandmother who encounters danger and decay instead of a beautiful nostalgia) and "Before The Change" (in which a woman tries to sort out her feelings about her father, an underground abortionist, and her own secret), do not quite move in expected directions.
Love is always viewed from a woman's perspective, and refracted through diverse experiences, culminating in a reality askew or a dream-state. "Jakarta" begins as a satire of two married couples, replete with erotic undercurrents from Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence, and it ends with a peculiar kind of epiphany: Munro moves easily from one time frame to another, disclosing changes that friends and spouses make in their lives that can result in unexpected shapes for experience. The story is rife with almost casual ironies, for it isn't just about a husband's mysterious disappearance in the Far East and his wife's suspicion that he is still alive, but also about how we can love someone "agonizingly".
"The Children Stay" is a story about the disastrous affair a self-effacing married woman has with the man who directs her as Anouilh's Eurydice in an amateur production. Love is an especial problem for those who seek perfection. Munro's skill at probing a character's secret life and at revealing its radiant agitations turns this tale into a bittersweet experience of pain and a "slightly ridiculous desolation".
Munro's female narrator in "Cortes Island" is a young bride whose ambition is to be a writer. Keenly observant of her sour landlady, Mrs. Gorrie (who likes to wash her china cabinet), and the woman's invalid husband whom she sometimes cares for, she has an extravagant imagination which takes us on a surreal journey into the heart of the couple's dark, violent secret.
The most insistent of the many motifs in these stories-e.g., physical affliction, gross corruption, bitter remnants of the past, lives viewed as radical mistakes, the violence of marital breaks-is the dream. And this is precisely how the collection ends. Upon first reading, "My Mother's Dream" troubled me by its assumptions about female identity and its ending. However, a second reading convinced me that this is really a skillfully crafted piece. Narrated in the first person by a woman looking back at her relationship with her mother, a violinist widowed by a war hero, the story moves in concentric circles, spiralling out from the "unreality" of the dream opening when the mother looks out of a big arched window and sees everything covered with snow: "Yet something was wrong. There was a mistake in this scene. All the trees, all the shrubs and plants, were out in full summer leaf. The grass that showed underneath them, in spots sheltered from the snow, was fresh and green."
Once again, we are presented with a disorientingly strange image, plus the conflation of different points of view, for it is the mother's dream being narrated by one who could only have been a baby at the time. To further complicate the scene, we soon come to realize that there is a dream-within-a-dream.
The very title of "My Mother's Dream" is equivocal: apart from the first dream and a later, fateful one that gets entangled in the climax, the mother, prematurely widowed, thinks of her daughter's birth "as bringing something to an end rather than starting something". She and the baby live with her female in-laws, including two spinster sisters. One, who is mentally ill, takes over the care of the baby. When it appears that the mother has accidentally killed her baby, there is a chillingly anarchic climax which leads to the narrator's assumption of her feminine nature and her mother's realization that the alternative to loving is disaster. The fused viewpoints strain credulity at times; however, Munro reveals yet again that she is not a realist but a super-realist who investigates the poetic state of the subconscious.
The Love of a Good Woman does repeat certain of the motifs from other stories by Munro, and the circling around the mysteries of existence is what we have come expect from this phenomenal writer. However, the sheer mastery of technique-the rhythmic modulations, the flux of dream and subconscious, the rich texture, intriguing disjointedness, and the essential unknowability of character-continues to delight as it pulls us into the extraordinary imagination of a beguiling storyteller.
Keith Garebian's next book is The Making of `Cabaret' from Mosaic Press.