The Peace Of Utrecht by Alice Munro, 1960
The magic trick:
Connecting a web of family dramas and memories, focusing on the role of the narrator’s sister
This is one of the very best of the very early Alice Munro stories. It’s the story of a homecoming. The narrator is back in her hometown after years away. The story jumps around memory to memory filling in gaps of backstory. But crucially it begins and ends with scenes between the narrator and her sister. This is the relationship that seems to collect all the different family issues and pent-up guilt and resentments. This is the heart of the story.
In the opening scene, we’re not sure what to make of the sister. By the closing scene, we’ve learned so much about the family history, the sister has become a tragic figure. While the narrator carries on in the world on her own path, the sister has stayed home and assumed the role of their mother, in all its loneliness and anger. What a connection to draw. And that’s quite a trick on Munro’s part.
“I couldn’t go on,” she said. “I wanted my life.”
She was standing on the little step between the kitchen and the dining room and suddenly she lost her grip on the bowl, either because her hands had begun to shake or because she had not picked it up properly in the first place; it was quite a heavy and elaborate old bowl. It slipped out of her hands and she tried to catch it and it smashed on the floor.
Maddy began to laugh. “Oh, hell,” she said. “Oh, hell, oh Hel-en,” she said, using one of our foolish ritual phrases of despair. “Look what I’ve done now. In my bare feet yet. Get me a broom.”
“Take your life, Maddy. Take it.”
“Yes I will,” Maddy said. “Yes I will.”
“Go away, don’t stay here.”
“Yes I will.”
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