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'An unapologetic writer of short fiction'
'The Love of a Good Woman'
By Alice Munro
Web posted on:
Tuesday, March 09, 1999 12:21:40 PM
(CNN) -- In eight short stories, Alice Munro extends and magnifies her great themes -- the vagaries of love, the passion that leads down unexpected paths, the chaos hovering just under the surface of things, and the strange, often comical desires of the human heart. This is an excerpt from Jakarta, one of the short stories in the award-winning collection "The Love of a Good Woman".
Kath and Sonje have a place of their own on the beach, behind
some large logs. They have chosen this not only for shelter from the
occasional sharp wind -- they've got Kath's baby with them -- but
because they want to be out of sight of a group of women who use
the beach every day. They call these women the Monicas.
The Monicas have two or three or four children apiece. They
are all under the leadership of the real Monica, who walked down
the beach and introduced herself when she first spotted Kath and
Sonje and the baby. She invited them to join the gang.
They followed her, lugging the carry-cot between them. What
else could they do? But since then they lurk behind the logs.
The Monicas' encampment is made up of beach umbrellas,
towels, diaper bags, picnic hampers, inflatable rafts and whales,
toys, lotions, extra clothing, sun hats, Thermos bottles of coffee,
paper cups and plates, and Thermos tubs in which they carry
homemade fruit-juice Popsicles.
They are either frankly pregnant or look as if they might
be pregnant, because they have lost their figures. They
trudge down to the water's edge, hollering out the
names of their children who are riding and falling off logs or the
"Where's your hat? Where's your ball? You've been on that
thing long enough now, let Sandy have a turn."
Even when they talk to each other their voices have to be raised
high, over the shouts and squalls of their children.
"You can get ground round as cheap as hamburger if you go to
"I tried zinc ointment but it didn't work."
"Now he's got an abscess in the groin."
"You can't use baking powder, you have to use soda."
These women aren't so much older than Kath and Sonje. But
they've reached a stage in life that Kath and Sonje dread. They turn
the whole beach into a platform. Their burdens, their strung-out
progeny and maternal poundage, their authority, can annihilate the
bright water, the perfect small cove with the red-limbed arbutus
trees, the cedars, growing crookedly out of the high rocks. Kath
feels their threat particularly, since she's a mother now herself.
When she nurses her baby she often reads a book, sometimes
smokes a cigarette, so as not to sink into a sludge of animal
function. And she's nursing so that she can shrink her uterus and
flatten her stomach, not just provide the baby -- Noelle -- with
precious maternal antibodies.
Kath and Sonje have their own Thermos of coffee and their
extra towels, with which they've rigged up a shelter for Noelle.
They have their cigarettes and their books. Sonje has a book
by Howard Fast. Her husband has told her that if she has to read
fiction that's who she should be reading. Kath is reading the short
stories of Katherine Mansfield and the short stories of D. H. Lawrence.
Sonje has got into the habit of putting down her own book and picking
up whichever book of Kath's that Kath is not reading at the moment.
She limits herself to one story and then goes back to Howard Fast.
When they get hungry one of them makes the trek up a long
flight of wooden steps. Houses ring this cove, up on the rocks
under the pine and cedar trees. They are all former summer
cottages, from the days before the Lions Gate Bridge was built,
when people from Vancouver would come across the water for
their vacations. Some cottages -- like Kath's and Sonje's -- are still
quite primitive and cheap to rent. Others, like the real Monica's,
are much improved. But nobody intends to stay here; everybody's
planning to move on to a proper house. Except for Sonje and her
husband, whose plans seem more mysterious than anybody else's.
There is an unpaved crescent road serving the houses, and
joined at either end to Marine Drive. The enclosed semicircle is full
of tall trees and an undergrowth of ferns and salmonberry bushes,
and various intersecting paths, by which you can take a shortcut
out to the store on Marine Drive. At the store Kath and Sonje will
buy takeout French fries for lunch. More often it's Kath who
makes this expedition, because it's a treat for her to walk under the
trees -- something she can't do anymore with the baby carriage.
When she first came here to live, before Noelle was born, she
would cut through the trees nearly every day, never thinking of her
freedom. One day she met Sonje. They had both worked at the
Vancouver Public Library a little while before this, though they had
not been in the same department and had never talked to each
other. Kath had quit in the sixth month of pregnancy as you were
required to do, lest the sight of you should disturb the patrons, and
Sonje had quit because of a scandal.
Or, at least, because of a story that had got into the newspapers.
Her husband, Cottar, who was a journalist working for a magazine
that Kath had never heard of, had made a trip to Red China.
He was referred to in the paper as a left-wing writer. Sonje's picture
appeared beside his, along with the information that she worked in
the library. There was concern that in her job she might be promoting
Communist books and influencing children who used the library, so
that they might become Communists. Nobody said that she had done
this -- just that it was a danger. Nor was it against the law for somebody
from Canada to visit China. But it turned out that Cottar and Sonje were
both Americans, which made their behavior more alarming, perhaps
"I know that girl," Kath had said to her husband, Kent, when
she saw Sonje's picture. "At least I know her to see her. She
always seems kind of shy. She'll be embarrassed about this."
"No she won't," said Kent. "Those types love to feel
persecuted, it's what they live for."
The head librarian was reported as saying that Sonje had
nothing to do with choosing books or influencing young
people -- she spent most of her time typing out lists.
"Which was funny," Sonje said to Kath, after they had
recognized each other, and spoken and spent about half an hour
talking on the path. The funny thing was that she did not know how
She wasn't fired, but she had quit anyway. She thought she
might as well, because she and Cottar had some changes
coming up in their future.
Kath wondered if one change might be a baby. It seemed to her
that life went on, after you finished school, as a series of further
examinations to be passed. The first one was getting married. If
you hadn't done that by the time you were twenty-five, that
examination had to all intents and purposes been failed. (She
always signed her name "Mrs. Kent Mayberry" with a sense of
relief and mild elation.) Then you thought about having the first
baby. Waiting a year before you got pregnant was a good idea.
Waiting two years was a little more prudent than necessary. And
three years started people wondering. Then down the road
somewhere was the second baby. After that the progression got
dimmer and it was hard to be sure just when you had arrived at
wherever it was you were going.
Sonje was not the sort of friend who would tell you that she was trying
to have a baby and how long she'd been trying and what techniques
she was using. She never talked about sex in that way, or about her
periods or any behavior of her body -- though she soon told Kath things
that most people would consider much more shocking. She had a
graceful dignity -- she had wanted to be a ballet dancer until she got too
tall, and she didn't stop regretting that until she met Cottar, who said,
"Oh, another little bourgeois girl hoping she'll turn into a dying
swan." Her face was broad, calm, pink skinned -- she never wore
any makeup, Cottar was against makeup -- and her thick fair hair
was pinned up in a bushy chignon. Kath thought she was wonderful
looking -- both seraphic and intelligent.
Eating their French fries on the beach, Kath and Sonje discuss
characters in the stories they've been reading. How is it that no
woman could love Stanley Burnell? What is it about Stanley? He is
such a boy, with his pushy love, his greed at the table, his
self-satisfaction. Whereas Jonathan Trout -- oh, Stanley's wife,
Linda, should have married Jonathan Trout, Jonathan who glided
through the water while Stanley splashed and snorted. "Greetings,
my celestial peach blossom," says Jonathan in his velvety bass
voice. He is full of irony, he is subtle and weary. "The shortness of
life, the shortness of life," he says. And Stanley's brash world
Something bothers Kath. She can't mention it or think about it.
Is Kent something like Stanley?
One day they have an argument. Kath and Sonje have an
unexpected and disturbing argument about a story by D. H.
Lawrence. The story is called "The Fox."
At the end of that story the lovers -- a soldier and a woman
named March -- are sitting on the sea cliffs looking out on the
Atlantic, towards their future home in Canada. They are going to
leave England, to start a new life. They are committed to each
other, but they are not truly happy. Not yet.
The soldier knows that they will not be truly happy until the
woman gives her life over to him, in a way that she has not done so
far. March is still struggling against him, to hold herself separate
from him, she is making them both obscurely miserable by her
efforts to hang on to her woman's soul, her woman's mind. She
must stop this -- she must stop thinking and stop wanting and let her
consciousness go under, until it is submerged in his. Like the reeds
that wave below the surface of the water. Look down, look
down -- see how the reeds wave in the water, they are alive but they
never break the surface. And that is how her female nature must
live within his male nature. Then she will be happy and he will be
strong and content. Then they will have achieved a true marriage.
Kath says that she thinks this is stupid.
She begins to make her case. "He's talking about sex, right?"
"Not just," says Sonje. "About their whole life."
"Yes, but sex. Sex leads to getting pregnant. I mean in the
normal course of events. So March has a baby. She probably has
more than one. And she has to look after them. How can you do
that if your mind is waving around under the surface of the sea?"
"That's taking it very literally," says Sonje in a slightly superior
"You can either have thoughts and make decisions or you can't,"
says Kath. "For instance -- the baby is going to pick up a razor
blade. What do you do? Do you just say, Oh, I think I'll just float
around here till my husband comes home and he can make up his
mind, that is our mind, about whether this is a good idea?"
Sonje said, "That's taking it to extremes."
Each of their voices has hardened. Kath is brisk and scornful,
Sonje grave and stubborn.
"Lawrence didn't want to have children," Kath says. "He was
jealous of the ones Frieda had from being married before."
Sonje is looking down between her knees, letting sand fall
through her fingers. "I just think it would be beautiful," she says. "I
think it would be beautiful, if a woman could."
Kath knows that something has gone wrong. Something is
wrong with her own argument. Why is she so angry and excited?
And why did she shift over to talking about babies, about children?
Because she has a baby and Sonje doesn't? Did she say that about
Lawrence and Frieda because she suspects that it is partly the
same story with Cottar and Sonje?
When you make the argument on the basis of the children,
about the woman having to look after the children, you're in the
clear. You can't be blamed. But when Kath does that she is
covering up. She can't stand that part about the reeds and the
water, she feels bloated and suffocated with incoherent protest. So
it is herself she is thinking of, not of any children. She herself is the
very woman that Lawrence is railing about. And she can't reveal
that straight out because it might make Sonje suspect -- it might
make Kath herself suspect -- an impoverishment in Kath's life.
Sonje who has said, during another alarming conversation, "My
happiness depends on Cottar."
My happiness depends on Cottar.
That statement shook Kath. She would never have said it about
Kent. She didn't want it to be true of herself.
But she didn't want Sonje to think that she was a woman who
had missed out on love. Who had not considered, who had not
been offered, the prostration of love.
Copyright © 1998 by Alice Munro