This year has been another classic year for our book club. As we get to the end of the year, we always take a backwards glance at the year’s books in our annual review and it’s always a delight to go back over the reading material and re-appraise the books—time often provides another filter in which to consider their impact.
We have read some really challenging and stimulating books this year in book club and none more so than the latest: a slim collection of short stories by Nobel prize winner, Alice Munro. I’ve said many times before, the measure of a great book club book is the conversation it stimulates, the book itself doesn’t have to be amazing: in fact if it is, it’s usually high scores all round and a fairly dull meeting ensues.
I think we’ve only read short stories before on one occasion (Sci Fi as I recall) and we knew we were in safe short story hands with Munro, given her recent Nobel accolade for her literature. Awards are no guarantee of a satisfying book and discussion as we’ve found in the past, but the book ticked a lot of boxes, so in we went.
This book was easy to read, although I found short stories need to be consumed in one sitting, otherwise the characters in different story fuse together. In fact looking back, I feel the themes were far more important across the collection than the characters. Good short stories are impressive feats of writing too—a compelling and believable world has to be created quickly and efficiently with no luxury of 800 pages to flesh it out.
Munro examines the trajectories of lives, criss-crossing, delicately woven together, smashed part, unfolding, unravelling. She tackles the difficult issues of the bargains we make with ourselves to make things work or rationalise in our hearts and heads. She enjoys the untidy nature of life which, as much as we try to keep it in order, can never be mastered. She is a master at portraying the complexity of emotions, the fragility of relationships, unbreakable family ties, duty and responsibility. Furniture is a theme that re-occurs constantly, an analogy I think for the everyday stuff that surrounds us in our lives, physical things that we can move around but never goes away.
The men in her book are hard, unattainable, dutiful, arms length objects of female desire to be lusted after or fearful of. The women are trapped, hemmed in by their duty and loyalty, occupying traditional stereotypes that perhaps speaks more of her Canadian home.
Her prose is like a delicate filigree, beautifully realising the relentlessly chilly tales. I found many of the stories bereft of emotion, Munro doesn’t flinch from the harshness of life and relationships, as the reader, one gets cold comfort from her elegant, neatly realised writing.
This collection is ultimately a mediation on morality and mortality—each story prodding, poking, picking at the edges of life. There aren’t many answers to be found in her pages, she simply sets out the scenes and asks the reader to decide. As each story unfolds, Munro seems to get bolder, finishing with the powerful Bear came over the mountain, laying out the components of loss: memory, relationships, tragedy and mundanity.
Of course a collection of stories like this got us all hot under the collar and a seriously good discussion ensued. I scored the book highly as this is clearly the work of a great writer and writing this, three weeks after we met, the themes have matured and lurk in the back of my mind, gloomily reminding me that it’s a fine line between happiness and sadness. And it’s a line that we all tread daily.
Rooks wheel and cluck overhead, exiting their trees elegantly, their calls echoing across a mystical landscape. The clearing storm has left the sky blue, bruised and tender. A nagging, insistent wind whips off the downs bringing tears to eyes and the smell of open fields and a life long ago.
In the half-light of a late November day, heading towards the winter solstice, the shortest day, the day it can’t get any worse, the day from which it all starts to get better, the day our ancestors worshipped —is surely the best time to visit the stones of Avebury. The summer tourist throng has ebbed away, leaving the stones and their earthworks alone once more. Sentinels, keeping watch, marking time, somehow capturing the spirits of all who have worshipped and toiled.
Spending time amidst the stones of Avebury and its restorative landscape is a nourishing experience. The majesty of the giant megaliths reminds us of something we once knew, things that were important to us, echoes from the past, resonating here and now.
If Stonehenge is a beautiful church, that we can look at but not touch, then Avebury is the spectacular cathedral that we can enter into, engage with, touch the fabric. Stonehenge is the newcomer: all innovation, new technology bristling with flashy new techniques but Avebury is old school, predating its upstart neighbour by hundreds if not a thousand years.
This is a landscape rich in ancient treasure, man-made hills, enormous barrows stretching out to the horizon, burial mounds peppering the rolling hills, stones standing, lying, hedges carved into the chalk. Impressive though this all is, what we see is but a pale echo of the grandeur of the past. Avebury was abandoned in the iron age, actively ignored and to this day, we have no idea why. Perhaps the next new thing came along, all bells and whistles, new ideas and all that — stones are so last millennia darling.
The dark and middle ages were unkind to the stones, fear and myth grew up around them and in an attempt to confront their power, they were used in church buildings and a village settled in their midst. Eventually revered antiquarians Aubrey and Stukeley identified their importance in the 17th century, recording amidst systematic vandalism and wanton destruction.
It’s a miracle of sorts then that we still have something so impressive. Concrete pegs take the place of giant stones hauled away; their aligned brothers remain, still standing, stoic and silent. The modern Avebury visitor can get a real feel for the place, although the busy A road that bustles through the middle of the site can prove a distraction, another ploy by our descendants to destabilise the importance of the site, failing miserably.
To wander amidst the stones is to get back in touch with our past, to try to understand who we were and in some odd way, give us some clues as to what we are now. Touching the ice cold stone, fingers running over rough hewn sarsen, a worn smooth lunar landscape, weathered by time, moss clinging, there is no magical sizzle of energy for me, but a connection to lives lived across the millennia.