Generations ago, on Cortes Island at the north end of the Strait of Georgia, there lived an adulterous wife. When her fisherman husband was out on the water, she would hang a white cloth on her clothesline, telling her lover she was ready for him. He would hurry over in his boat.
As things turned out, these three islanders seeded a great work of literature, The Love of a Good Woman, by Alice Munro. One day the fisherman found the lovers together and killed the man. His wife then helped hide the murder. While he put the body into the lover's own boat, towed it out into the Strait, and left it to drift, she cleaned up the evidence. Their lives returned to normal, until a visitor, who turned out to be a detective, wormed the truth out of her. The fisherman was charged with murder, but the jury at Nanaimo acquitted him. In fact, members of the jury shook his hand.
Alice Munro came upon this incident in The Evergreen Islands, a book of local history. She gratefully quotes that source in Prize Writing, a paperback distributed last week at the Giller Prize dinner. Edited by Gary Stephen Ross, Prize Writing brings together essays written by past Giller winners to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the prize.
Munro discussed the murder once before, in 1997, when The Love of a Good Woman was published in an anthology: "The sudden switch from sex to murder to marital co-operation seemed to me one of those marvellous, unlikely, acrobatic pieces of human behaviour." Maybe the wife was hysterical when her lover was killed, but she soon began covering the crime to save her family--though later she proved unable to remain silent.
A great storyteller, Munro understands how stories run through everyday life and shape it. Has any writer ever made more out of the tales her characters choose to tell, or not tell, each other? Munro's characters are often storytellers themselves, skilled or clumsy manipulators of narrative. When they learn a secret they feel the burden of private knowledge and worry about what to do with it.
In telling how that long-ago murder inspired The Love of a Good Woman (the title piece in the 1998 Giller winner), Munro generously lets us see one of her stories coming painfully to life. And not just any story. The Love of a Good Woman runs almost 90 pages, speaks in several different voices, and deals with a multitude of yearnings, affections, resentments and fears. Surprising new layers appear and powerful images heighten the key passages. No single story demonstrates all of Munro's talents, but this one comes close.
As she began writing it, Cortes Island became the town of Walley in southwestern Ontario, in 1951. The Strait of Georgia became a river flowing into Lake Huron, the murderous fisherman became a farmer, and the lover became an optometrist making house calls. His boat became a car, a little Austin found in a river with his body inside. As the story expanded toward novella length, six substantial characters appeared -- the shy farmer Rupert and his brazen wife, Jeanette, three boys who find the body, and a practical nurse, Enid, who helps Jeanette when she's afflicted with a fatal liver disease.
Munro draws the boys with astonishing accuracy, and makes the farmer and his wife impressive characters. But it's the practical nurse, Enid, who has remained with me since The New Yorker first published The Love of a Good Woman seven years ago. Enid appears late, when the story is one third told, but she takes over.
It's Enid who ends up carrying the burden of a secret. Jeanette, dying, confesses that she had an affair with the optometrist, which so infuriated her husband that he beat the man to death. Jeanette says she suggested the body be placed in the Austin and shoved into the river. She dutifully repainted a floor in her house because she couldn't scrub away the blood. No one ever knew. The death was considered either suicide or accident.
This story alters everything for Enid. She's 36 years old, sexually deprived, and in love with Rupert. Now he's a killer. Or is the murder only the feverish nightmare of a dying woman? It occurs to Enid that "Lies of that nature could be waiting around in the corners of a person's mind, hanging like bats in the corners, waiting to take advantage of any kind of darkness." (Those bats make a simile that's both homely and perfect.) She realizes you can never say, "Nobody could make that up," because she knows from her own loathsome sexual dreams that anybody can make anything up. And Jeanette, whose story changes several times, may not be credible. Certain details supplied by Munro support her account, but at the end we are left to judge her words for ourselves.
After working on the story for months in Canada, Munro took it with her when she and her husband went to Ireland for half a year. There she spent more months working on it, and when their time in Ireland was nearly over it ran 80 manuscript pages and looked to be finished. Then she took one morning to read it right through, "all at one go," and was appalled. It seemed unlike anything she had written, and not like anything anybody should have written. She tossed it in the garbage.
Soon after, she decided to give up not only that story but the writing of fiction. The idea exhilarated her; she would find something else to do. Apparently that feeling passed, because when she returned home to Clinton, Ont., she took up her earlier draft and set to work again. Eventually the story her readers know emerged.
So what was the matter with the draft that went in the garbage in County Cork? The tone was all wrong, she realized, and the trouble was Ireland. All her life she had read great Irish writers, and in Ireland they filled her mind. She saw the world through their eyes and in their words. Back in southwestern Ontario she became herself again. She regained her tone and was able finally to write the story the way it wanted to be written, as she always does.