Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Elizabeth Harrower’s “Alice” was originally published in the February 2, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.
Well, what an exciting couple of weeks in The New Yorker fiction section! Last week, we got a “new” Isaac Bashevis Singer story, and this week we get a “new” Elizabeth Harrower story! Elizabeth Harrower, though alive in her late 80s, has not published — and says she has not written — anything in approximately 45 years. In 1971, she pulled her last novel, In Certain Circles, from publication not long before the publication date. Before that, she had published four novels, with The Watch Tower being her last, published in 1966 (I haven’t read any of it, but from what I’ve seen it looks right up my alley).
Last year, through some process of cajoling, Harrower allowed In Certain Circles to be published. James Wood reviewed the book, and gave a nice overview of Harrower’s publication history, in The New Yorker last year (here). According to Deborah Treisman’s interview with Harrower upon the publication of “Alice” this week (here), a collection of Harrower’s short stories is due out in Australia (and, one hopes, elsewhere) later this year. It’s one to look out for: “Alice” is a phenomenal story.
In “Alice,” Harrower gives us an astonishingly detailed portrait of Alice’s life, almost in its entirety, as it has been influenced and modulated by her quest for her mother’s love. I said it in the paragraph above, but I’ll say it again: “Alice” is a phenomenal story. Here’s the set-up: Alice, the naturally “good” girl, and her dismissive mother:
Her mother was Scottish born and bred — irrational, raucous, bony, quick-tempered, and noisy. She had no feelings. She was bright, like anything burning: a match, a firecracker, a tree. Alice was as watchful as a small herbivorous animal. Mother and child were unsatisfied. They looked at each other.
There is little Alice can do to win her mother’s love. Alice is already doing everything as perfectly as she can. Despite this, her mother’s love is completely spent on Alice’s two younger brothers. And just look at how Harrower brings up and then dispatches the father:
Oh, the family had a father. But he went away to be a soldier and was gone for years. When he came back, he was even more silent than before, and the mother indicated that he was of no account. He went to his mysterious work, and spent almost as much time there as he had at the war. When he returned to the house, it was only to eat and sleep. Much later, after the children were all grown up, he died. The day after the funeral, no one could remember his voice.
As a young girl, Alice does not understand why her mother is the way she is. But this relationship rules her life and her relationships. “Because Alice’s deepest attention, you might even say her soul, was busy looking back, over its shoulder, she had few acquaintances and no friends.” As the story moves on, Alice finds herself being a wife in a marriage that means little to her. After all, her husband’s love means nothing to her if she cannot also have her mother’s.
Many things make “Alice” a phenomenal story — the scope, the intimacy, the prose that runs crystal clear but that bites. But Harrower shows here something I admire a great deal: she understands her characters intuitively and she articulates their psychology with astounding insight and compassion, a kind of compassion that doesn’t shy away from flaws. It reminded me of the strongest moments in John Williams’ Stoner. If he got a revival recently, I say let’s give one to Harrower while she is still around to see it.