Monday, 30 July 2012

Canadian Reading

My reading list for July included a self-set challenge to read something by a Canadian – other than Margaret Atwood, Guy Gavriel Kay and Lucy M Montgomery - because I know nothing whatsoever about the country or its writers. So I've started with Runaway, a collection of short stories by Alice Munro, since she was born in July (1931), but the book also fits my aim of reading more short stories, a genre I am not really familiar with. As you can see, I am still determined to try and take my reading in new directions this year.

Munro writes precise, spare prose where there are no unnecessary descriptions or superfluous emotions. Her writing reminded me of an Edward Hopper painting, with people in a domestic landscape, engaged in everyday tasks, yet somehow disconnected from the world around them. There's an air of sadness and slight mystery about these stories, with their failed relationships and lost opportunities. Munro describes moments in time, moments in life. Things happen, decisions are made almost by default, and life drifts on, but there are no explanations, no reasons given, and no judgements made. People are as they are, and life is as it is, and that is how Munro tells it.

The book takes its title from the first of the eight tales in the collection, and to start with I wondered why Munro had selected this as her main title, but as I read on I could see how apt it is, since so many of the men and women within these pages are bidding to escape from something – parents, lovers, spouses, children, life in small-minded small towns, illness, themselves. There are journeys (physical and emotional), moves and re-inventions of self, but despite their travels no-one arrives at a destination, and nothing is ever fully resolved, perhaps because these people never know what it is they want from life, or if they do know they refuse to acknowledge it.

Munro's stories are longer than most other short stories I've read, and she packs so much in that they could almost be short novels, or novellas, especially the three about Juliet, which I loved. I have to admit that for several pages I was a bit uncertain about the first tale ('Runaway') but by the time I met Juliet I was hooked on Munro's writing, and read on and on, although I'm inclined to think short stories are best appreciated when they are read on their own, one at a time.

In 'Chance' Juliet travels to the man she will live with, the account interspersed with an earlier journey when she first meets him. In 'Soon' she takes her baby daughter Penelope to visit her parents at her childhood home. And in 'Silence' she tries to understand why Penelope has left home without a word and never returned. I loved this three stories, and they way they built, piece by piece, to give a picture. From the beginning 'Chance' reels you in.

Halfway through June, in 1965, the term at Torrance House is over, Juliet has not been offered a permanent job – the teacher she replaced has recovered – and she should be on her way home. But she is taking what she has described as a little detour. A little detour to see a friend up the coast.

The friend is the man she met on a train, who has remembered her first name, and where she works, and has written to her at the school, ending with the words:
I often think of you.I often think of you
I often think of you zzzzzz
Who could resist a letter like that? Not Juliet, that's for sure. When she arrives at his home in Whale Bay, on the west coast of Canada 'somewhere north of Vancouver', nothing is quite as she expects, but she never returns home from the 'little detour'.

In 'Soon' she visits her parents in the small town where she has grew up, where people are shocked that she is 'living in sin' with Eric, and that they have a child. Again, Juliet finds that nothing – and no-one – is quite as she remembers. There is the slightly sinister Irene, who has come to help. Her father, a one-time teacher turned market gardener, seems less of a man than he was, while her beautiful, ailing mother is like a spoilt, petulant child, whose mantra when things get too bad is that 'soon' she'll see Juliet. But Juliet is unable to offer the support her mother needs, or to decide whether home is with her parents or with Eric.

But she had not protected Sara. When Sara had said, soon I'll see Juliet, Juliet had found no reply. Could it not have been managed? Why should it have been so difficult? Just to say yes. To Sara it would have meant so much – to herself, surely, so little. But she had turned away, she had carried the tray to the kitchen, and there she washed and dried the cups and also the glass that had held grape soda. She had put everything away.

It's as if she's put her past life away as well, unable to cope with the memories or changes. Then, in 'Silence', she is the one who is left waiting, hoping that soon her daughter will contact her again. She has arranged to meet Penelope at the Spiritual Balance Centre, but when she arrives the girl has gone and a woman tells her Penelope went to them in 'great hunger' because she had been spiritually starved at home.
 For a few years a card arrives on Penelope's own birthday – then nothing. But each time she moves house she takes her daughter's possessions with her, bundled up in a rubbish bag. She even meets an old school-friend of Penelope, who has met her, changed beyond recognition.

She keeps on hoping for a word from Penelope, but not in any strenuous way. She hopes as people who know better hope for undeserved blessings, spontaneous remissions, things of that sort.

It was the Canadian Book Challenge                                         which  prompted me to search out some Canadian authors (helped by Claire at and I was just going to read, but not join in, but I've got a year to read 13 books, and I've amassed a little collection which will take me to the half-way point, so maybe I'll give this challenge a whirl.


  1. Well, you started with an author who's not my cup of tea, but nonetheless I'm happy to have you joining the challenge and am curious as to what other books you will choose!

    1. Thank you.I'll keep you posted. I keep trying The Sisters Brothers, but I can't get to grips with it, so at the moment I'm half-way through Alison Pick's Far to Go, which is riveting, and I've got some Susanna Moodie after that. Any recommendations will be gratefully received - and I want a 'potted' history book.

  2. I'm glad you're 'into' Canadian lit thru this challenge. You're wise to discover others other than Atwood or Montgomery. Alice Munro is a world class short story writer. There are many others that have reached the world lit. scene. On last year's Booker shortlist, there were 2 Canadian writers among the 6. Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers and Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues. My personal faves are Anne Michael's Fugitive Pieces (won Orange Prize & Guardian Fiction Prize), and two Booker Prize winners Yann Martel's Life of Pi and Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. I know, they may not have chosen a Canadian setting for their novels. Hope the book challenge is a springboard for you to continue your discovery of Canadian writings. ;)

    1. Arti, thank you for your recommendations. I like Atwood (well, most Atwood) but I wonder how she is she viewed by her fellow countrymen, since she is such a dominant figure that here in Britain she seems to be the only Canadian author people think of, which is unfair on other writers. I've got Half Blood Blues in the TBR pile, and Life of Pi (hadn't realised there was a Canadian connection. There was a copy of The English Patient in the Oxfam book shop, so if it's still there on my next shift I'll buy it. But I'm still struggling with The Sisters Brothers!

    2. For some 'classic' Canadian writers, those whom we studied while in university ages ago, they include Mordecai Richler, Margaret Laurence, Hugh MacLennan, Morley Callaghan, W.O.Mitchell... their works would have setting right in Canada. Recent years, Canadian writers tend to encompass much wider cultural and geographical locations and historical periods, which is all the better I think. Yann Martel, Rohinton Mistry, Denise Chong, Annabel Lyon, Vincent Lam, Jane Urquhart, M.G.Vassanji... just to name a few. Hope you enjoy your Canadian reads!

    3. Arti, you're a star! Thank you.

  3. With the challenge you should discover a lot of great Canadian authors. If you really want to hunt some new ones down take a look at the Giller, Governor General and Canada Reads winners, finalists and longlists. There are some great reads there. I really enjoy Munro, she's quickly becoming a must read everything author for me. Good luck with the rest of the challenge.

    1. Thank you Jules.They look interesting - I shall make some notes, and go off to the library armed with a list. I feel very silly not knowing anything about Canada.