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27th March 2014

Review: The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro

Books editor Annie Muir encourages you to read the novel that Alice Munro always wanted to write

In December last year Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. The eighty-two year old published her first collection of short stories, The Dance of the Happy Shades, in 1968 and her most recent collection, Dear Life, came out in 2012.

Munro said in an interview with the Guardian that her first attempt at writing was to rewrite Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid with a happy ending. It is interesting, then, that her long career is made almost entirely of short stories, which don’t need to have happy endings because they don’t really have endings. Unlike novels which can seem to summarize the worlds they depict, short stories are snippets, and because of this denial to finalise they are more like reality which cannot easily be concluded (except for the obvious way).

Munro commented that short stories are ‘often brushed off as something people do before they write a novel […]. I would like them to come to the fore without any strings attached.’ But she also says that she’s always wanted to write a novel.

I read The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose after reading this article. To me it seemed like a novel, the one she’s always wanted to write. The stories were published separately in The New Yorker, but their ability to stand alone only attests to the brilliant writing, and adds to the interest of the book as a whole. The unexplained leaps in time make it fascinatingly filmic. Through the different episodes you see Rose’s personality change, so much that it is almost like a different character every story. But the important thing is that it is not.

The stories begin with little details about her childhood in Hanratty. During the later stories I found myself thinking back to her childhood stories, and remembering what she was like then. I found that I was drawn to these early stories, maybe because she herself is the most likable character as a child. Her older character is sometimes less attractive and harder to sympathise with: she has affairs and sometimes seems to treat other people quite badly. But she is also the most real character I have ever read, partly because of the fact that I don’t always like her. If it wasn’t for being connected to all the rest of the parts of me and my life I might not like myself when I did certain things. In the same way if you didn’t keep thinking back to Rose’s childhood, and the lack of love she seemed to receive, you would probably like her less.

My favourite is the last story called ‘Who do you think you are?’ where Rose goes back to her hometown. In this story you see her go back to the place she grew up and notice all the changes and developments being built, and you see her realise how interesting and vibrant it used to be, the way it is presented in the first stories, when all she wanted to do was escape.

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