And there is much in Munro about temporary victories, a sensitive adjustment to the fact that facts, although facts, are not necessarily the last answer. Munro uses her own experiences as child and young woman. In this world her mother looms behind the child and the young woman, a tragic figure of a limited but powerful woman who did harm in ignorance. Munro has triumphed over this as well as over other aspects of what must have been a hard and often bitter childhood. She is a delicately able reporter of the darker. sides of the family, the small community and the adjustment to a larger but not necessarily more palatable world
Reviewed by Bob Williams
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
by Alice Munro,
Knopf 2002, $24.95, 373 pages, ISBN 0-375-41399
This collection of nine stories is often moody and always moving. Munro is sure about her people, precise in her words and with a genius for the description of particular places. In addition to these gifts of a good writer but she is also a born storyteller and by the careful assemblage of detail a natural poet.
The first, the title, story concerns deception. The title derives from a schoolgirls’ game of divination. A servant of unprepossessing
appearance makes a rapid departure from her employment and the town in which she has lived and worked. She leaves under the impression that a man in a distant city is ready to marry her. Two mischievous girls have created this false impression by tampering with the letters that purportedly pass between them. When she arrives she finds that the man is ill. She nurses him back to health and takes over the management of his desperate affairs. They marry and have a son. This bald summary of the story does not convey the story’s virtues. Although more contrivedly slick than the other stories in the collection, it contains telling jewels of precise observation and ironic comments. It is especially effective as an opening story of a collection.
We are in a different and more serious world with “Floating Bridge”. A woman comes from a consultation with her oncologist. He has guardedly given her hope. She is ambivalent about this. She has prepared herself for death and her doctor’s words seem to be an interruption of this rather than a reprieve. She finds it impossible to share the news with her husband when she gets into his van. There is another person in the van and it is difficult for her to speak in the presence of a stranger, a young woman who is to take care of her. This woman and the husband wrangle good-naturedly but stubbornly and it quickly appears that neither of them are much concerned about the sick wife. Before returning home they run an errand. It brings them to a farmhouse where the family is hospitable but overwhelming. The wife stays in the car, an action that offends the farmer’s family and angers her husband. The farmer’s son comes home from work, divines her needs better than her husband and drives her home. They stop along the way. The boy kisses her and his gentle attention assuages the anguish of her situation.
“Family Offerings” examines the turns that time and heredity play in the formation of character. An aunt of the protagonist, Bohemian in some
ways, seen in her own home is really not very different from the other, rigidly conventional aunts of the protagonist who wonders where she
herself is and how much of her is herself and how much is family.
“Comfort” is a very complex story. A man, a former schoolteacher who resigned rather than bow to the pressure of some fundamentalists, is
seriously ill and kills himself. Nina, his wife, discovers the body and frantically searches for some note to her. She suffers greatly from the
absence of this note and searches out unusual ways to console herself for its absence. The funeral director finds the note but it contains
nothing for her. The note contains only some rude verse about the fundamentalists. She takes his ashes into the country and scatters them along a road.
“Doing this was like wading and then throwing yourself into the lake for the first icy swim, in June. A sickening shock at first, then amazement
that you were still moving, lifted up on a stream of steely devotion – calm above the surface of your life, though the pain of the cold continued to wash into your body”.
The pattern of the collection is roughly alternation of simple with complex story. “Nettles” concerns the reunion of childhood sweethearts and their decision not to initiate a passionate side to their renewed
but brief relationship.
In “Post and Beam” Lorna is married to Brendan, a professor of mathematics. Their friend Lionel is a waste of his former brilliant self but is a valued friend who is infatuated with Lorna. His own affairs take him from them briefly and Lorna’s cousin Polly arrives on a visit. Brendan is not pleased and suspects rightly that Polly has arrived to insert herself parasitically into Lorna’s life. They are obliged to leave her while they attend a wedding to which they have been invited. Polly is distressed out of all reason with Lorna’s refusal to include her in the invitation. On the return home Lorna, fearing to find that Polly has committed suicide in their absence, tries – despite the fact that she is not a believer – to make a pact with God to prevent Polly’s suicide. But Polly, discovered by the returned Lionel, has been enjoying his company very much and Brendan, seeing this involvement with approval, relaxes his enmity towards Polly. Lorna decides that her bargain with God is to endure and persist.
The less substantial “What Is Remembered” studies more what the heroine makes of what happens than of what happens itself. It concerns a transient and adulterous encounter. As in “Floating Bridge” the physical event restores to the woman her damaged self-esteem.
“Queenie” is another story with a simple theme although the details are lovingly observed and expertly depicted. It concerns union and parting
and the resulting feeling of loss. Two women have grown up as sisters and the younger comes to live with the older, Queenie. But Queenie is not stable. She leaves her husband and is not heard of again. The younger woman, now much older, begins to fantasize that she sees Queenie
in a variety of encounters with women that are brash and flashy. Each encounter underlines her painful feeling of loss.
“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” occupies an important position as the last story in the collection. Fionna, seventy, is married to Grant. He has been a devoted if sometimes unfaithful husband and her slip into senility dismays him. From onset to incapacity is a very short step and
he commits her to Meadowlake, a home for the elderly and incapacitated. The rule of Meadowlake prevents his visit for thirty days. As a result of this brutally inhumane rule Fionna no longer recognizes Grant and has formed a strong bond with Aubrey, another inmate. There is a crisis when Aubrey’s wife, for financial reasons, removes Aubrey from Meadowlake. Fionna, pining for Aubrey, suffers from her deprivation and her health begins to fail. The authorities consider it inevitable that they must move Fionna from the relatively unconstrained environment of the first floor to the second floor, reserved for those patients with especially severe mental and physical disabilities. Grant tries to get Aubrey back to save Fionna from this. In pursuit of this aim he meets Marian, Aubrey’s tough-minded and practical wife. Although at first adamant about her decision, she eventually – as a result of Grant’s becoming involved with her – agrees that Aubrey will visit Fionna. But Fionna has recovered from her infatuation with Aubrey and even remembers Grant who makes the most out of this temporary victory.
And there is much in Munro about temporary victories, a sensitive adjustment to the fact that facts, although facts, are not necessarily the last answer. Munro uses her own experiences as child and young woman. In this world her mother looms behind the child and the young woman, a tragic figure of a limited but powerful woman who did harm in ignorance. Munro has triumphed over this as well as over other aspects of what must have been a hard and often bitter childhood. She is a delicately able reporter of the darker sides of the family, the small community and the adjustment to a larger but not necessarily more palatable world.
For more information on Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories, visit: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship,…
About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: