Alice Munro: “Leaving Maverley”

11/25/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, November 28, 2011.

Both Leah and Isabel are sheltered people, the former on account of her hyper-religious father, the latter on account of her medical condition, pericarditis. Come to think of it, so is Isabel’s husband, Ray, who by choice serves as the night policeman of Maverley. After surviving the war in the Air Force (“which promised, as was said, the most adventure and the quickest death”), “He came home with a vague idea that he had to do something meaningful with the life that had so inexplicably been left to him, but he didn’t know what.” As his older wife grows more and more ill, he cuts himself off more and more, ignoring all the signs and invitations to continue with his life, whether that’s out of fear or a sense of obligation, or both. The only thing that takes him outside himself are his brief encounters with Leah, who abruptly blossoms from the shy ticket taker whom he escorts home after hours, to the young girl who has eloped with the minister’s rebellious saxophone-playing son, to the new mother whose clutching children only brighten her smile, to the sort of lady who might carry on an affair with the new minister, to the grown woman who, lonely, volunteers to help cancer patients.

The story itself, as to reflect Ray’s stunted life, is somewhat vague in the telling, with a lot of secondhand information being filtered to Ray through gossip, and a lot of uninformed observations made by Ray himself, who hasn’t yet managed to take control of his own life. The result keeps me, as a reader, at a remove from Munro’s world, though as usual, I can’t fault her clear prose; there’s just the sense that she knows her characters far better than we do, and the one real glimpse she gives us voyeurs at the very end isn’t enough: Ray, who has finally lost his wife to her disease after four wasting, largely comatose years, is wandering about in shock, when he suddenly remembers Leah, “an expert at losing, she might be called–himself a novice by comparison,” and remarks that it’s “A relief out of all proportion, to remember her.” Will they at last connect? Has Munro written all these pages simply to show us how long it takes us to sometimes find ourselves and each other? The title certainly hints at that, for it’s about leaving the past behind: moving from the small town to the larger city, growing up, taking charge, which implies that you must also take on some risk. For me, however, I’m left with little to say: the story is straightforward in this explanation, almost rigidly so, and there’s little room to imagine anything further for these characters, save to perhaps be happy for the future they may now share.

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