With The View From Castle Rock, Alice Munro exercises what is apparently something of an inherited disposition: the desire, or compulsion, to record. She says of a distant forebear, the writer James Hogg, that he “was both insider and outsider, industriously andhe hopedprofitably shaping and recording his people’s stories There would be some trimming and embroidering of material Some canny lying of the sort you can depend upon a writer to do.”
Munro, too, has had the uncomfortable advantage of being both an insider and—after leaving the centuries-long rural life of her ancestors for a university education and the city—an outsider. And now this industrious trimmer, embroiderer, and canny liar has shaped and recorded (“not in an austere or rigorously factual way”) the histories of some people—in fact, her family—most of whom were neither sufficiently illustrious nor sufficiently egregious that their stories would otherwise be preserved. And in the course of the telling, Munro’s own history emerges.
“These are stories,” she stresses. “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.”
This amalgam of history, fiction, and memoir is unlike any historical fiction or autobiographical fiction that I have ever encountered. It is more on the order of a flowing exploration, which begins in obscurity, brings vividly into the light assorted pioneers and settlers of the author’s family, and then weaves itself into various circumstances of Munro’s own life, probing possibilities and happening upon continuities. The book looks simultaneously back and forward, even beyond the confines of its own end, seeking to divine the place and internal experience of certain individuals, including the author herself, within history and passing time. To read this book is to experience oneself speculatively, too—to sense acutely the properties and capacities of a mortal existence as the future streams toward us.
Readers will find the familiar joys of Munro’s writing—the breathtaking accuracy of observation; the apparently casual narrative that turns out to have led inexorably to some inescapable juncture; the disarming directness of expression; the author’s ability to captivate us immediately and draw us gradually into strange, intense, lingering states of mind; the flashes of deadpan satire; the penetrating social vision; the inimitable blend of cool scrutiny and profound empathy. But The View From Castle Rock is not only every bit as beautiful and substantial a work as Munro’s readers might hope for; it is also a work of dizzying originality. In fact, it creates an entirely new category of book into which only it can fall.