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Book Review: The View From Castle Rock by Alice Munro

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There is a reason that Alice Munro is called the modern Anton Chekov. Few surpass her in the description of subtleties that can make an ordinary life seem extraordinary. Her stories have an emotional depth that can be difficult to achieve in novel length exposition, let alone in the brief pages of a short story.

Again and again, Alice Munro manages to do just that – capture a seemingly ordinary moment and make it revelatory and transcendent. In her new collection, The View From Castle Rock, Munro uses material that comes from her family history, and in doing so makes these stories perhaps the most personal ones she has told.

The books is split into two parts; Part One, also called No Advantages, imagines her ancestors in Scotland, their journey to the New World, and their eventual settlement in Canada. Part Two, called Home, are the stories of Munro’s own childhood on the farm in Ontario. In these stories we see the themes Alice Munro masters in earlier collections: themes of class, love, sex, domesticity, the struggle between reality and the desire for something just beyond the horizon. These stories remind me of Munro’s best work.

“Lying Under the Apple Tree” tells the tale of the narrator’s (presumably Munro) first romance, and the bitter disillusionment and disappointment that can follow. “The Ticket” is my favorite story of the collection. In it we find the narrator on the cusp of her first marriage. This story fits, like another chapter, into one of Munro’s best stories, “The Beggar Maid,” showing the steady feeling of unease that creeps over the soon-to-be bride who is not sure her new life is exactly what she wants. As the family gets ready for her wedding, she realizes all this hard work is not nearly enough to cross the class gap separating her family from her fiancé’s. These and the other stories of Part Two sing with beauty and an authenticity that few can match.

What prevails about the collection is the non-fictional and sometimes surprisingly dreamy quality of the narrative. Munro takes time to muse over the landscape of her ancestors and ponder over the conjectured history of these characters. This does not detract from the experience if you already appreciate Munro.

Critics and fans will find this material rich and well-worth scrutinizing closely, but the first-time reader may flounder; they may find this collection less engrossing and captivating in comparison to her other works. This is not the place for someone uninitiated to Alice Munro, but once you come to love her as I do, this book will be a way to get closer to this brilliant author, and to peer directly into the inner-workings of one of our best modern short fiction writers.

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