Alice Munro: “Haven” from The New Yorker 3/5/12

New Yorker photograph by Grant Cornett

New Yorker photograph by Grant Cornett

I had not approved of my parents’ going to Africa. I had objected to being dumped – my word for it – with my aunt and uncle. I may even have told them, my long-suffering parents, that their good works wer a load of crap. In our house we were allowed to express ourselves as w liked. Though I don’t think my parents themselves would ever have spoken of “good works” or of “doing good.”

In some ways, this is the mirror image to Claire Keegan’s “Foster” from two years ago. Instead of a girl sent from a cruel home to a kind one where she learns what it is to be loved, the unnamed girl in Munro’s story is sent from an “open” 70s home – expressing yourself, self-determination and freedom, chili in clay pots – to a restrictive and regulated place with her Aunt Dawn and Uncle Jasper. She doesn’t see her aunt as being particularly burdened by this atmosphere, however:

She was used to holding back until she was sure that my uncle had said all that he meant to say. Even if I spoke to her directly, she would wait, looking at him to see if he wanted to do the answering. What she did say was always cheerful, and she smiled just as soon as she knew it was O.K. to smile, so it was hard to think of her as being suppressed. Also hard to think of her as my mother’s sister, because she looked much younger and fresher and tidier, as well as being given to those radiant smiles.

My mother-in-law was like that. I had no trouble at all thinking of her as suppressed. Then again, I was older.

The girl doesn’t really think of herself as being subjected to any kind of restriction:

When I got better acquainted with my new school and with the rules about what girls there did after they reached their teens, I realized that biking was out of the question….

She was right, both a bout my acquiring a few friends and about the way that that would limit the things I could do.

In fact, she find it quite nice to live in a house nicely kept by Aunt Dawn, and to sleep on sheets hung out in the sun to dry rather than being sent to the Chinese laundry – or, as Uncle Jasper bellows, “Chinks.” My father was like that. Children, even thirteen-year-olds, have a remarkable way of adapting to pretty much anything as normal. And there is a theory that adolescents long for structure and limits, which is why they rebel, to be sure those limits are in place. She comes to enjoy living in the haven Aunt Dawn has created for Uncle Jasper:

“Haven” was the word. “A woman’s most important job is making a haven for her man.”
Did Aunt Dawn actually say that? I don’t think so. She shied away from statements. I probably read it in one of the housekeeping magazines I found in the house.
Such as would have made my mother puke.

The events turn around Jasper’s estranged sister, Mona, a violinist touring with a trio. She’s giving a concert on the night Jasper has a medical association meeting, so Dawn invites her, and the neighbors, over for dessert. She doesn’t want Jasper to know. To the girl, she seems to be having a grand time – “ certainly looked as if she were excited about something. Perhaps just about being personally responsible for these moments, this spread of delight…” – when Jasper arrives home. There’s an awkward scene where he noisily eats a bowl of pork and beans as they leave. I’m guessing he has some resentment towards his estranged sister for pursuing a musical career. Or, most likely, any career. For not being controllable. He punishes Dawn for some period of time:

After our conversation about music, Uncle Jasper’s attention to me became more respectful…. Once, he said that it was a pleasure to have an intelligent person to talk to across the table. My aunt said yes, it was. …Life was hard for her, but by Valentine’s day she was forgiven…

A few months later, Mona dies, and the funeral is to be in the family church. Dawn, looking radiant in lilac – “A thorn had been removed. A thorn had been removed from Uncle Jasper’s side, and that could not help but make her happy” – drives up with the girl, who’s never been to a funeral and has some trepidation about “the Last Look.” Jasper comes later and creates a scene rearranging things to suit him – substituting his own organist and hymn, which Dawn does not sing – then finds himself cornered by the altar as the choir comes in. Hoisted by his own petard, as it were. Out of control, and unable to punish anyone for it. It hardly seems like enough.

But that’s just the story. The way it’s told is another matter.

The unnamed girl, the narrator, is both observer and participant. She’s affected by the change in her living situation, yet the story is mostly about Jasper and Dawn. I suspect the girl’s degree of participation is necessary to establish that she is not a fully reliable narrator, that her interpretation of events is naive as she does not understand the passive-aggressive and narcissistic uncle’s methods. It’s quite annoying to see her take the role of her uncle in some ways, enjoying the fruits of Dawn’s labors without contributing anything to those efforts. If she had to do the work to maintain the house she comes to enjoy, maybe she’d feel differently about it. Chili in clay pots might not look so bad once she’s had to bake the delicate cookies and wash the multitudes of flatware and linens.

My real annoyance, however, comes from the tense shifts. During scenes of particular intensity, such as the dessert party or the funeral, Munro shifts into present tense – but peppers it with “flashlight voice” recollections that muddy the waters. Here’s an example:

The pianist is sitting with her hands quiet on the keys, and the cello player has stopped. The violinist continues alone. I have no idea, even now, if that was the way the piece was supposed to go or if she was flouting him on purpose. she never looked up, as far as I can remember, to face this scowling man. Her large white head, similar to his but more weathered, trembles a little but may have been trembling all along.

Maybe this serves as a transition to the girl-today, but it’s distracting to me. Assuming the object of present-tense in these scenes is to increase the immediacy and effect of being lost in a recollection of particular power, flopping around like that draws me completely out of the scene, out of the story, and nullifies the effect. Add to that, my annoyance at the girl for acceding so readily to her uncle’s world-view:

Some of my ideas had changed during the time iu had been living with my aunt and uncle. For instance, I was no longer so uncritical about people like Mona….Devotion to anything, if you were female, could make you ridiculous.
I don’t mean that I was won over to Uncle Jasper’s way of thinking entirely – just that it did not seem so alien to me as it once had.

I found myself annoyed with this story overall. Especially now. And as always, I wonder: is that perhaps the point?


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