Sunday, February 17, 2008

Friend of My Youth

When I chose Friend of My Youth by Alice Munroe as one of my selections for this challenge, I was aware of her reputation as a short story writer par excellence, and that reputation is certainly well deserved. Each one of these 10 stories unfolds like slow motion photography, the characters revealing their deep, often surprising secrets with cool restraint, as the stories of their lives develop before our eyes.

Like Brenda, (Five Points) who "used to teach nursery school," and her husband Cornelius "who was twelve years older." Now they live on a farm and sell used appliances, which Cornelius "fixes up." And in the evenings, Brenda drives out of town to meet Neil, her lover. When she sets eyes on him, waiting for her in his Mercury, "it's like hitting water when you're dead of heat and scratched and bitten all over from picking berries in the summer bush - the lapping sweetness, the cool kindness of it soaking up all your troubles in its hidden depths."

And Georgia, (Differently) who works part-time in a bookstore, while her husband Ben is "off on his yearly cruise in the Navy." She enjoys meeting people, talking with them about books, making cups of raspberry tea. When Miles first comes into the store, leaving his motorcycle parked at the curb, she's immediately drawn to his "valiant profile, his dusty red hair (he took off his helmet and shook out his hair before coming into the store), and his quick, slouching, insolent, invading way of moving." Soon, with his "oblivious prowling, and unsmiling, lengthy, gray-eyed looks, he had Georgia in a disturbed and not disagreeable state." So when he asks her to go riding on his motorcycle, "Georgia said yes; she knew what was bound to happen."

(Is it getting warm in here, or is it just me?)

The mysteries of life - of which clandestine sexuality is only one - figure largely in each of these stories. A recent widow travels to Scotland to connect with the people and places her husband spoke of seeing during his service in the war, and finds things not at all as she expected them to be (Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass). A retired minister creates an elaborate ruse in order to live the remainder of his life on his own terms (Pictures of the Ice). And, in the title story, a woman's strange dreams about her mother's last illness reveal some complex truths about their relationship.

I was drawn to each of the characters in these stories, completely involved in their tales of birth, marriage, divorce, death. My heart ached for them, these women from small Canadian farming communities coming of age in the 50's and 60's, and confronted with the task of remaking their lives in a world where all the expectations have suddenly changed.

Alice Munroe is a remarkable writer, her words chosen so carefully, her sentences structured so beautifully, creating rich, warm portraits of people and place. Each story is completely satisfying (even to this ravenous reader who has never before found short stories fulfilling), with the complexity of a novel deftly compacted into just a few pages. These are "writer's stories," so perfectly crafted they become the "true north" in the galaxy of short story writing.

Friend of My Youth has converted me, a short story cynic, into a short story lover. Now, I can't wait to get my hands on another one of Munroe's collections - and since she's written at least 10 of them (and only one novel!), I'll have plenty to feast on for quite some time.

Friend of My Youth
by Alice Munroe
published 1990, by Alfred Knopf
273 pages

crossposted at Bookstack


Anonymous said...

These are the best short stories I've found on the web....

I found these last week and were so struck by them I'm trying to tell more people about them since it doesn't seem as though this guys stuff gets the notice it deserves....

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm a dolt, because I don't understand what "complex truths" were revealed about the woman and her mother in the title story. The dreams were hardly mentioned -- what was the point of the long story-within-the-story about the two sisters?