The opening story of Alice Munro’s rich new collection, The View from Castle Rock, glancingly refers to the talent of her ancestor, Scottish author James Hogg, for “embroidering” factual histories: i.e., he was known to practice “some canny lying of the sort you can depend upon a writer to do.” Munro’s own homespun genius for transforming received material into imaginative projections of how we’ve lived (and might have lived) has produced ten lavishly praised collections and an early novel-in-stories, and earned her a reputation as both the best short story writer on our continent and her country’s probable first Nobel laureate.
In addition to The View from Castle Rock, which speculates (or, if you will, “lies”) about the lives of Munro’s Scottish ancestors as prelude to a compact fictional semi-autobiography, Munro’s matchless work is represented this fall by Carried Away, a gathering of 17 previously published stories. The tales in Carried Away display a broad range of subject matter, emotional experience and rhetorical effects, though the settings only rarely stray beyond Munro’s native rural Ontario.
Among the best: unsparing portrayals of the combative relationship between young protagonist Rose and her impulsive mother Flo (“Royal Beatings,” “The Beggar Maid”); a crisply imagined mystery about a country wife who may have murdered her abusive husband (“A Wilderness Station”); the intricate account of a vulnerable nursing home patient protected and exploited by her frustrated husband (“The Bear Came Over the Mountain”); and the great title story, in which a timid librarian’s life from youth through marriage and middle age is dominated by fantasies of the young soldier who possessed her imagination through all the years when they never met.
The View from Castle Rock echoes these earlier works in its concluding half (“Home”), which presents an episodic biography of its unnamed narrator, from her Ontario girlhood through first intimations of romance (“Lying Under the Apple Tree”), maturity and marriage, the aging and deaths of loved ones and confirmation of her own mortality. But the book’s great achievements are the five long stories that trace the harsh lives of her Scots ancestors (the Laidlaws) in a bleak land offering “No Advantages,” their emigration to North America, what and how they endured and what, so far as their descendant can piece together and imagine, became of them.
This book within a book eloquently memorializes our common past and the manner in which it formed us and continues to shape our destinies. Alice Munro has honored the world of her fathers and mothers in an echo of the promise made to the medieval Everyman: “I will go with thee and be thy guide.” In the last century, we have had no better guide than this indispensable author.