I’d like to recommend, the Castle Rock stories by Alice Munro

This is a book that I’ve been dipping in and out of for about a year.

These stories are like the box of very expensive chocolates that our friend, Gail, gave us for Christmas.  I don’t always trust manufacturers claims about the passion and individuality of the chocolatiers who’ve created their products, but that was a savour-one-flavor-a-day box that lasted right into the second week of January, because each chocolate was an individual treat.

Munro demands a similar kind of reading attention.  For a start, these are long stories.  They build gradually, revealing blended layers of ideas, memories, scenes, history and character.  I can’t rush one: I want to pay attention to every aspect of it.  How patient a narrator she is, and yet how concisely she explains geography, history and language.  In her hands, these elements are not just a backdrop, they are story.

The high stony farm where my family lived for some time in the Ettrick Valley was called Far-Hope.  The word hope, as used in the local geography, is an old word, a Norse word – Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic words being all mixed up together in that part of the country.

Taken alone, this could be called trivia.  Read in context, it does more than orientate me to another era: it sets a tone and the mood.  And we do need to know these things, they give weight to the characterisation. These are stories of clear, clean prose with hidden depths.

alicemunroWhat makes them a little different to the usual Munro style?  The first half of the collection are stories drawn from Munro’s investigations into her family’s history.  She begins in Scotland, traces their journey to Canada, then relates some of the events that happened there.

Munro says in her Foreword:

I put all this material together over the years, and almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into something like stories.

She describes this process as, ‘a curious recreation of lives, in a given setting that was as truthful as our notion of the past can ever be.’

True is a word I would use to sum-up this collection.  The voices, the situations, and the events all feel authentic.  The things that happen are domestic, often mundane, yet Munro draws our attention to their importance in the shaping of these told lives.

The second half of the collection is loosely biographical.  For anyone wondering how to use their own experiences in their writing without creating a memoir, always a tricky undertaking, then this collection provides an interesting approach.

I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way.  I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could.  But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things that they had not done in reality…In fact, some of these characters have moved so far away from their beginnings that I cannot remember who they were to start with.

‘These are stories.’ Munro states.  I can only agree.