Munro is a Canadian writer; by coincidence my next book is by fellow Canadian writer Margaret Atwood who has also written Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid's Tale, both fantastic reads.
This is a collection of tales held together by the conceit that they report things experienced by her family; thus it is sort of part family history, part memoir, part fiction.
Her earliest traced ancestor was Will O'Phaup, William Laidlaw of Far-Hope farm in Ettrick, the highest inhabited farmhouse, she tells us, in Scotland. Will was a local legend for his running and jumping and feats of strength. But he also claimed to see fairies. On the first occasion he did this he heard something familiar in their chirping. When he recognised it he realised that "his own name is all the word in their mouths" [beautifully expressed in a sort of Scottish lilt]. Then ... "And down from the hills comes a cold draught of air though it is a warm summer evening."
I think what makes this book special is the wonderful characters Munro conjures. There is a host of characters in the story about the ship crossing the Atlantic in which the proud but resolute patriarch of the small Scottish family emigrating to the United States keeps telling tales of his family history and the world they are leaving because he realises too late how much he will miss. This same unbending man has already lost two fine sons who chose to leave home rather than stay with such an uncompromising father. His daughter in law has married one of his sons after perhaps having conceived the first child with another, less responsible, son. His toddling grandson deliberately hides so that he can watch the chaos occasioned by the search for himself undertaken by his near-hysterical aunt who was caring for him when he disappeared. The intelligent son is given the opportunity to better himself by marrying a posh girl with TB but chooses to stay with his family and farm.
And later. Unbending men and naughty boys. Suffering stoical women. Men who escape the grind of farming for the uncertainty of trapping; women who find themselves (in both senses) in salesjobs but then get Parkinson's and endure a long decline into death. Girls who lust after boys and boys who cheat on them.
There are isolated families that isolate themselves: "they had constructed a life for themselves that was monastic without any visitations of grace or moments of transcendence".
There are men who are "mean in both senses of the word" and there are communities that accept them: "some people were born to make others miserable and some let themselves in for being made miserable. It was simple destiny and there was nothing to be done about it."
There are many "Poor people burdened with more intelligence that their status gives them credit for."
There are girls who are mean and bitchy about other girls:
- "She was so apt to lose track of what she was telling me (though not to stop talking) that she was very boring."
- "Being easily embarrassed, yet a show-off, as I improbably was, I could never stand up for anybody who was being humiliated. I could never rise above a feeling of relief that it was not me."
There is lust. This makes the family narrative sometimes go slightly awry; it battles against the desire for respectability.
- "It was the men who made me sick. The looks they gave me, of proper disapproval and sneaky appraisal. The slight dull droop and thickening of their features, as the level of sludge rose in their heads."
- "our only real concern was to get at each other's skin."
- "when you have gone weak in the legs but aching, determined, in another part of your body."
One of the marks of a quality writer is the way they can out into words feelings and observations that you didn't even know you didn't know how to say:
- "This last sentence sounded like a thank-you that she didn't know how to say."
- "It was like the signal for a smile, when the occasion did not warrant the real thing."
This is beautiful writing and a clever theme for a collection of short stories. But her genius is for character.
January 2017; 349 pages