The latest in what feels like a drip-feed of Munro re-issues since her 2013 Nobel Prize, Lives of Girls and Women is, now as in previous editions, presented as a novel – ‘Munro’s only novel!’ – in much the same way as Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs was heralded as some sort of glorious aesthetic coming-of-age: forget your short stories, folk, this is the Real Deal! There’s two oddities here: one, obviously, the assumption that the novel is more important or notable, the equating of popularity and/or commercial success with artistic significance, but two, also, in the case of Lives of Girls and Women, that anything that’s got any tenuous continuity of form better be a novel, is better sold as a novel. Structurally, this book sits midway along a continuum that encompasses, at one extreme, the collection of pretty much unrelated short stories, and at the other, the tightly plotted, forward-moving ‘traditional’ novel – your Pride and Prejudice, your It, your Goldfinch. Munro’s book’s chapters would, mostly, sit fairly comfortably as independent publications – as short stories – but, at the same, they do have a cumulative effect; read in sequence, they’re more than the sum of their parts. The point being, the word novel, as multifarious a catch-all as it is, is a touch misleading in this case: there isn’t a narrative here built around a singular arc with all the rising action and cathartic culminations that you’d typically, if maybe stereotypically, expect from a novel; rather, there’s a series of semi-autonomous narratives that loosely track the development of a single character (Del Jordan) from childhood to (young) adulthood – these build upon each other, but they don’t rely upon each other for coherency as the chapters of a novel would generally tend to do. All of which is to say, if you pick this up expecting the regular forward momentum and singularity of plot that the word novel implies, you might feel put out: but don’t be put out. The book itself is excellent, but the simplicity of genre categorizations is doing it a weird disservice.
So, the book’s split into seven main sections, with a short, eighth, post-script; although there’s a certain amount of chronological overlap between each, the timescale moves more or less evenly from Del’s childhood on her father’s silver-fox farm in 1940s Ontario, to her schooldays, adolescence and preparations to leave, while detailing the eccentricities and tragedies of her neighbours, extended families and friends. As the book goes on, the sections fixate more on Del’s ambitions and intentions – like her mother, she’s an intellectual and a misfit in Jubilee, amongst her own family and neighbours – while the earlier pieces are more concerned with Del’s broader world: Uncle Benny’s peculiar marriage, her great-aunts isolated lives, her mother’s disappointments. It’s typical Munro – if you’re a Munro fan – with its exploration of small-town life in post-war Canada, the strictures of a narrow, often religious, world-view upon young women’s lives, the struggle between ambition, pride and shame, academic study and the ‘real world’ of sex, jobs and families; it’s typical, too, in that it’s apparently digressive, or deliberately non-Aristotelian, in so far as each story/chapter roams widely over time and topic rather than sticking more dogmatically to the issue at hand, but also in that this expansiveness masks tight control over each section’s development. And it’s funny, with the grotesqueries of Flannery O’Connor’s country people and the disgusted and enthralled social observations of Atwood’s Cat’s Eye. In a way, of course, it’s also predictable – it’s a coming-of-age tale, a smart-kid-outgrows-small-town-tale, a sexual awakening tale, and so you know how it’s going to turn out – disillusionment mixed with disengagement and hope. But you don’t really read Munro for the what, you read her for the how – the brilliance of the minor, horrible, detail; the nuance of the emotional reveal – and this delivers in spades.
Any Cop?: Of course! It’s up there with Munro’s best – but that’s why Vintage are jumping on the reissue train, right? There’s nowt like a guaranteed hit. If you’ve not come across it before, grab a copy pronto.