Each week I invite someone bookish to tell us about one of their all-time favourite works of fiction, and why it’s so special to them. This week’s Friday Fave comes from writer and publisher Terri-ann White:
‘Blimey. Declaring a book as a favourite one is easier said than done: do I select a book by a friend? One published by me? Do I declare my undying love for Alice Munro, again? She is the fair-weather friend who I return to every New Year’s Eve as a ritual, have done for more than two decades with a new list of stories each new year. It means I have probably read each of her books ten or twenty times.
Alice Munro, the most challenging and empathetic writer, captures you unawares at 25, at 39, and at 53, and teaches and instructs in how love works. That’s the big question, isn’t it? Two other things she has taught me are the idea of fidelity, and the power of rereading. I’d rather get to know one book very well than keep up to date with everything on the hit parade. Her books can last a lifetime
There is an international cult of Alice Munro readers. We quiver as we wait for the next volume of her stories. As she entered into her sixties and seventies she started taking even more risks with her storytelling and sometimes the phantasms of memory became embodied. If you haven’t read Munro it’s time to do so: she is a brilliant writer who makes her reader work hard. You enter these worlds she projects and you are constantly required to take a stand, or suspend disbelief, or sort out a dilemma of fidelity: I’m thinking of Pauline, mother of two small girls and wife of Brian in “The Children Stay” (in The Love of a Good Woman) who decides in a desperate moment to leave them all in a beachside holiday with her in-laws to go with her lover Jeffrey. You can guess from the story’s title what this means. Jeffrey is a moody and immature theatre director who has cast her as Eurydice in a community production; he won’t last in her life, she knows it, but she cannot resist this urge, this sexual obsession that offers no chance of her going back.
So many of Munro’s stories are about escape and pursuit of dreams of bigger and better things: girls from rural Canada going to cities and education and, inevitably, more opportunity. They are rarely about people staying in one place, with one life partner. The breakups always bring massive change, and often this is the best thing that could have happened to the character’s life. There’s something in here about autonomy, independence, non-reliance upon men to bring order to a life. Quite a lot of it is about sex and how transformative it can be, both physically and emotionally, and the distance that will be travelled when in the grip of obsession and frenzy.
On the 19th of November 2001 I was in New York with a ticket to one of my favourite venues for readings and lectures, the 92nd Street Y, for an evening of celebration of the work of Alice Munro. Michael Cunningham, Lorrie Moore, Mona Simpson and “Ms Munro herself” were performing. I’d bought the ticket back in Australia and was so excited I’d stood up friends in Brooklyn who waited in a café for a wayward me who couldn’t think straight. So here we all were, about 1500 of us in the theatre, all sharing our Munro stories, favourite books and length of time we’d sat at her altar. The MC came out and made an announcement: Unfortunately Ms Munro cannot be with us tonight as she is recovering from a heart attack. A double whammy; even the most curmudgeonly couldn’t complain about her not turning up.
The whoosh across the theatre was huge. The tributes of the other writers, who each read a selection from one of Alice’s stories and spoke of the influence of this writer and their affection for her body of work had most of us in tears for the night, bringing a new speaking voice with new intonations into our repertoire of reading. We, the cult members, all knew these stories like the backs of our hands.
Alice Munro may change your life. She did mine. There are thirteen volumes of stories out there, and a new one due this month. At the age of eighty-two she is still grappling with the dilemmas of modern life; of women’s lives and how they have changed with feminism and sexual liberation. And she has crafted a style of storytelling that dazzles me nearly every time and warrants this obsessive reading and rereading.’
You can find a full list of Munro’s works on Goodreads.
Terri-ann White has spent her working life around books and ideas: as a bookseller, writer, teacher, festival organiser, director of a cross-disciplinary research centre at the University of Western Australia, and now Director of UWA Publishing.
I love the idea of getting to know one book really well, and what a lovely new year’s tradition. I’ve read a little Munro but Terri-ann’s passion makes me realise I need to delve a lot deeper. Do any of you have a book you love to re-read like this?
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