Review

The View From Castle Rock: Stories

by Alice Munro



When it comes to writing short stories, Canadian author Alice Munro
(RUNAWAY) is one of the best. She has published 11 new collections
of short stories, a volume of SELECTED STORIES and a full-length
novel. Her stories' timelines and subject matter range from birth
to death and hit every thinkable topic in between. She is the
master of unmasking feelings through words, and her landscapes are
so vividly depicted that one can envision them jumping off the page
and into reality.

In this latest collection, Munro turns her attention inward and
delves deeper into her own experiences than ever before. These 12
stories --- including the epilogue's sole story entitled
"Messenger" --- are slight variations and half-true fabrications of
actual events that took place over the last few centuries on one
side of her family's history. As she writes in the Foreword, "You
could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a
life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on. And the
part of this book that might be called family history has expanded
into fiction, but always within the outline of a true
narrative."

The first half of THE VIEW FROM CASTLE ROCK includes a set of five
stories, all loosely based on her family's journey from the Ettrick
Valley in Scotland to North America and the beginnings of their
lives there. In "No Advantages," she describes her poor,
hard-working Scottish ancestors in great detail --- half, what was;
and the other half, what might have been. In "The View from Castle
Rock," a young boy catches a glimpse of America --- and, in turn,
his father's dreams --- while perched atop Castle Rock in
Edinburgh. (Years later, the affirmation of his hunch that his
father was drunk that day and that "America" was merely Fife makes
the rest of the story seem all the sweeter.) Here, and continuing
on into "Illinois," "The Wilds of Morris Township" and "Working for
a Living," the hardships of daily toil, disease, famine and
sacrifice, and the saving graces of religious faith and family
loyalty, are felt on every page.

The second half of CASTLE ROCK is more loosely connected and
consists of stories written during but not published in her recent
short story collections. "They were not memoirs," she writes, "but
they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had
written, even in the first person…I was doing something
closer to what a memoir does --- exploring a 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." And, as in the
first section, the characters around this "self" take off and
create a gloriously imagined life of their own.

What stands out most in these stories (and in most, if not all, of
her others) is Munro's uncanny gift for turning a phrase and her
ability to capture the essence of a moment within the bookends of a
few carefully chosen words. In "Lying Under the Apple Tree" --- one
of the best in the collection --- a young girl's first fumblings
with lust and a Salvation Army boy of lower class is beautifully
portrayed in the pairing of question and observation: "Or does it
always seem natural to whisper in the dark? Or when you have gone
weak in the legs but aching, determined, in another part of your
body." In both "Home" and "What Do You Want to Know For?" --- two
equally magnificent and ruminant pieces about the nature of
belonging and feeling at home in one's present while yearning to
grasp the unattainable past and lay claim to the unforeseeable
future --- there are countless instances when the urge to stop and
meditate on a paragraph or a sentence should certainly be heeded.
These are the passages that encapsulate the marrow of life, and in
Munro's capable hands they ring true every time.

Regarding her inspiration for THE VIEW FROM CASTLE ROCK, she
writes, "Some of the characters gave themselves to me in their own
words, others rose out of their situations. Their words and my
words, a curious re-creation of lives, in a given setting that was
as truthful as our notion of the past can ever be." It is this
natural talent for seamlessly fusing habit with possibility,
permanence with intention, and fact with fiction, that makes
Munro's stories such a unique pleasure to read.

Reviewed by Alexis Burling on January 24, 2011

The View From Castle Rock: Stories
by Alice Munro

  • Publication Date: November 7, 2006
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 349 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 1400042828
  • ISBN-13: 9781400042821