by Alice Munro
from the June 27, 2011 issue of The New Yorker
It’s always a good way to start the week: a new story by Alice Munro, who obviously hasn’t slowed down much. This one may be one of my favorites of the recently published (and I have a lot of her back catalog to go through). “Gravel” is a masterful piece that showcases simple style and complex structure so nicely done it looks simple too.
Our narrator is an older woman looking back on something terrible that happened when she was only five years old, something she feels guilty about even though she can’t really remember that much (“I barely remember that life. That is, I remember some parts of it clearly, but without the links you need to form a proper picture.”). When she was five and her older sister Caro was nine, her mother became pregnant, allegedly by one of the actors who moved into town with the new professional summer theater.
My mother and father had been among those in favor, my mother more actively so, because she had more time. My father was an insurance agent and travelled a lot. My mother had got busy with various fund-raising schemes for the theatre and donated her services as an usher. She was good-looking and young enough to be mistaken for an actress. She’d begun to dress like an actress, too, in shawls and long skirts and dangling necklaces. She’d left her hair wild and stopped wearing makeup. Of course, I had not understood or even particularly noticed these changes at the time. My mother was my mother. But no doubt Caro had. And my father. Though, from all that I know of his nature and his feelings for my mother, I think he may have been proud to see how good she looked in these liberating styles and how well she fit in with the theatre people.
After she becomes pregnant, she moves herself and the two girls into a small home by a gravel pit.
My mother was the one who insisted on calling attention to it. “We live by the old gravel pit out the service-station road,” she’d tell people, and laugh, because she was so happy to have shed everything connected with the house, the street — the husband — with the life she’d had before.
Through much of the story, the narrator’s five-year-old self has no real idea what is going on. When she visits her father and her mother asks if she had a good time, she simple says yes, “because I thought that if you went to a movie or to look at Lake Huron or ate in a restaurant, that meant that you had had a good time.” At nine, Caro is much more bothered by the whole situation (indirectly, this story is her story rather than the narrator’s); she said yes, too, “but in a tone of voice that suggested that it was none of our mother’s business.”
The story develops wonderfully. Through small details, we get to know these people very well, even if our narrator is someone who is only piecing together poorly remembered moments. Amazingly, it accomplishes this though the story is very short, and nearly half of it dwells on one particular moment.
In the way “Gravel” deals with memory and guilt, and the way it is structured to do so (and not to simply tell a story from start to finish) reminded me a great deal of William Maxwell’s masterpiece, So Long, See You Tomorrow (see my review here). Incidentally, I think such a connection is purposeful. After Maxwell died in 2000, Alice Munro said of So Long, See You Tomorrow, “I thought: so this is how it should be done. I thought: If only I could go back and write again every single thing that I have written.” Certainly she has accomlished something similar but about a very different tragedy than the one Maxwell recounts. I loved it.