‘The Love of a Good Woman’ is the long story that opens Alice Munro’s collection of the same name. At over seventy pages it is, by my reckoning, a novella, It opens with a collection of instruments from the local museum – the tools of an old-fashioned optometrist, the gift of an anonymous donor. Munro goes on to describes these implements in forensic detail, and this story will in fact turn out to be a murder mystery, but one which is never solved. In fact we can never be certain that there really has been a murder, although there have been deaths, natural and unnatural; and the finger has been pointed at a suspect.
Much of the publicity surrounding Alice Munro since her Nobel laureateship has suggested a nostalgic kind of undemanding realism in her work, set mostly in semi-rural South Western Ontario. If that has put you off reading her, try this one, which is Munro at her most gothic. It also shows her careful sleight of hand, which makes you want to go back to the start when you finish the story, and rethink what happened. There is a nurse in this story – never trust a nurse in Munro – in charge of a dying woman, whose soon-to-be-widower, Rupert Quinn, is remote, taciturn and erotically charged. As the nurse, Enid, takes charge of the children as well as tending the sick wife, we might read him as Mr Rochester to Enid’s Jane Eyre. That surname, Quinn, also makes me think of Peter Quint in Henry James’s novella, The Turn of the Screw; there’s something unsettling about surnames beginning with Q.
Enid’s narrative begins some way into the novella. The ophthalmological instruments belonged to a D.M. Willens, who drowned in the river; their description is followed by the discovery of his body by a group of local boys, whose characters are brought to life in some detail. You may be under the impression that this is their story, just as the uniformed viewer of the first half hour of Psycho might assume the film is going to be about the stolen money. In fact the novella is constructed as a series of digressions. Seemingly inconsequential anecdotes are interwoven with shocking episodes of grotesque violence. The links between the instruments, the body, Enid and the Quinns gradually emerge, like Willens’ body, submerged below the surface.
The novella ends quietly, with Enid and Rupert in a rowing boat, back on the river, where Enid gets her man by striking an implicit bargain. Tidying a physical space – clearing the house, labelling, ordering and keeping tidy – acts as a metaphor for mental re-adjustment. Enid has come to learn that we can suppress unpalatable truths, making them untrue; and that only children really believe their wrongdoings will always be punished:
Through her silence, her collaboration in a silence, what benefits could bloom. For others and for herself. […] This was how to keep the world habitable.
Ailsa Cox is author of The Real Louise and Other Stories (Headland). Her other books include Alice Munro http://www.amazon.co.uk/Alice-Munro-Writers-Their-Work/dp/0746309929. She also edits the journal Short Fiction in Theory and Practice Short Fiction in Theory and Practice – Intellect Ltd.