The View from Castle Rock: Stories
Alice Munro, . . Knopf, $25.95 (349pp) ISBN 978-1-4000-4282-1
Ten collections of stories and one novel have made Alice Munro one of the most praised fiction writers of our time. In
Munro, in a foreword, tells how, a decade ago, she began looking into her family history, going all the way back to 18th-century Scotland. This material eventually became the stories presented here in part 1, "No Advantages." Munro also worked on "a special set of stories," none of which she included in previous collections, because they were "rather more personal than the other stories I had written." They now appear here in part 2, "Home." With both parts, Munro says, she has had a free hand with invention.
Munro has used personal material in her fiction before, but at 75, she has given us something much closer to autobiography. Much of the book concerns people who have died, and places and ways of life that no longer exist or have been completely transformed, and though Munro is temperamentally unsentimental the mood is often elegiac.
One difficulty that can arise with this kind of hybrid work is that the reader is likely to be distracted by the itch to know whether an event really occurred, or how much has been made up or embellished. In the title story, the reader is explicitly told that almost everything has been invented, and this enthralling multilayered narrative about an early 19th-century Scottish family's voyage to the New World is the high point of the collection. On the other hand, "What Do You Want to Know For?" at the heart of which is an account of a cancer scare Munro experienced, reads like pure memoir and seems not only thin by comparison but insufficiently imagined as a short story.
Perhaps none of the stories here is quite up to the mastery of earlier Munro stories such as "The Beggar Maid" or "The Albanian Virgin." But getting this close to the core of the girl who would become the master is a privilege and a pleasure not to be missed. And reliably as ever when the subject is human experience, Munro's stories—whatever the proportions of fiction and fact—always bring us the truth.
Sigrid Nunez's most recent novel, The Last of Her Kind, will be published in paperback by Picador in December.
Reviewed on: 09/25/2006