Alice Munro writes with the refreshing honesty, clarity and insight of a person comfortable with herself even in times of discomfort and confusion. She is a writer whose narrators, though they may be confused, are at the same time aware of themselves as a self, with all that that entails – the longing, the happiness, the sadness, the melancholy, the history, the family, the heart, the mind. The View from Castle Rock may be seen as something of a departure from Munro's recent work because the protagonist is largely herself, and though the stories may be fictionalized, the truths that she lays so neatly in plain view are bold, clear, and worth hearing.
The novel is split into two parts with five and six stories respectively, and a short epilogue. The first part, 'No Advantages,' begins in Scotland and details the journey of her family from Ettrick Valley, which lies 'about fifty miles due south of Edinburgh,' to Huron County, where part two, 'Home', is set, and where Alice Munro was born Alice Laidlaw a hundred odd years later.
Alice Munro is the firm narrator, explaining and analyzing the events of her family's history with an affectionate though distant eye. She follows the precept set by her ancestors - 'Self-dramatization got short shrift in our family' - and by refusing to dramatize both her own and her parents’, grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lives, Munro instead shows us lives that could have truly been lived. Our own lives do not follow the neat narrative arc of a novel or play, thus nor do the lives of Munro's family members. Rather than seeming a cheat – for there is very little plot to this work, simply generous helpings of character and setting – The View from Castle Rock is instead a gift, an empathic examination of the Laidlaws that is never humble, raising the characters to exactly where they belong and no further. Munro, as in all her work, eschews grandeur for intimacy, endowing her character's rich inner lives with sensitivity and tact.
But using a strong narrator in a work such as this is not always fruitful. The first part of the work stumbles at times, with Munro's voice incapable of always accurately expressing the affection she shares for these people to us, the reader. We know why she loves them – they are her family, after all, the deceased as much as the living – but it is hard for us to love them simply because she does. The title story works best at showing us her family, as Walter Laidlaw travels by boat to the New Continent along with his brothers and father. But the other stories are not as sympathetic. Perhaps it is because Munro intrudes too often, her voice by dint of being authorially omniscient overpowering the necessarily lesser volume of her characters. She assesses, she weighs, she wonders, she considers, but ultimately what she does is ruminate to herself about her family, though it is all captured on print. These thoughts, while interesting, strongly evocative of a distant Canada and an even more distant Scotland, and heartfelt, are not always conducive to good storytelling.
These misgivings are washed away by the second part of the novel, which has for the most part Alice herself as the narrator. Here we sense she is more comfortable in the protagonist's skin because she is, herself, the protagonist. No longer does she need to dance around flaws or hurry over unclear passages – instead she is able to show, in that wonderful way of hers, what it was like to grow up poor in Canada just after the Second World War. Munro's writing is charming, and charmingly casual, such that the stories seem not woven together after hours of scribbling out plot notes so much as lovingly knitted all of a piece, a cloth that makes sense for the pleasure it gives while making it as much as looking back on what is achieved. Munro's writing is always intimate, close in a way that does not require judgement so much as understanding as she peels back her characters to reveal their beating, strong hearts.
'Hired Girl,' a late story in the collection, strikes me as the strongest piece. It outlines Alice's first job as a maid, as well as one of her first sexual encounters, which is honestly and passionately told much as it would be experienced through the eyes of a naďve young girl. Munro's gift for description is strong, as when she describes the island where she works:
'The back window looked out on a gray rock that was like a slanting wall, with shelves and crevices on it where little pine and cedar trees and blueberry bushes had got a foothold. Down at the foot of this wall was a path – which I would take later on – through the woods, to Mrs. Montjoy's house. Here everything was still damp and almost dark, though if you craned you could see bits of sky whitening through the trees on top of the rock.' Munro's writing is understated and all the more powerful because of it. She understands very well that complicated words and difficult sentences sometimes take away from what is being said, they don't always add. Her writing is never flashy but always dazzles.
The best of the collection are the works which are the most intimate, the ones closest to her heart. Munro stresses in her introduction that 'These are ,i>stories,’ and we would do well to believe her. But the kernel of truth remains, and it is from this kernel that her wonderful stories of youth grow. It is the characters closest to Munro who burn the brightest in the text, from her father to her stepmother, to, of course, little Alice Munro herself, the girl who refuses to share her lunch hour at school with Frances, the prissy over-mothered girl, little Alice Munro who lives in awe of her stepmother for managing to sell fox furs to wealthy women with such apparent ease, and little Alice Munro who convinces herself that a throwaway comment by an 'ancient' man in his forties is invitation to swim naked together in a small pool behind the hotel where she works. The best character is the one closest to herself, the best stories those that deal directly with Alice Laidlaw when she was young. The View from Castle Rock is as strong a work as the rest of Munro's astounding output and well deserves a place alongside her other great short story collections.