Jinny has been standing on shifting ground.
Expectations are thwarted: these are times of transformation.
But there she is: the space in which she is standing shifts both literally and metaphorically.
Things have been all-a-shift for some time now.
Readers have the detailed description of the ways in which the house has transformed, literally and metaphorically making room for Jinny’s cancer.
Alice Munro’s detailing is delicate but pervasive, and readers understand that Jinny’s routine and Neal’s routine, and their routine as a couple: it’s all been upset.
There isn’t room anymore, it seems, for either of them to be the person that one has been in the past.
Neal packs up some things but he gets rid of more; the idea of what-life-might-be-like-in-the-next-while moves in with the hospital bed.
The story begins with an air of deprivation, a battening of the proverbial hatches, as this couple (at the ages of 42 and 58) prepares for the next stage of change.
“The unspeakable excitement you feel when a galloping disaster promises to release you from all responsibility for your own life. Then for shame you must compose yourself and stay very quiet.”
Readers recall other caretakers in Munro’s fiction, most recently Enid’s role at Mrs. Quinn’s home, in “The Love of a Good Woman”, which doesn’t lighten hearts.
Times have been tough for Jinny, but it seems they are going to get tougher.
The scenes viewed from the car as they travel between the doctor’s office and the hospital (for the caretaker, who stopped to pick up a pair of shoes from her foster sister) are bleak and broken.
“They went past a wrecking yard, with the car bodies only partly hidden by a sagging tin fence. Then up a hill and past the gates to a gravel pit that was a great cavity in the center of the hill.”
Which is where the terrain shifts, again, this time for readers. For the news that Jinny has gotten on this day, just before the story opens, news which she has not yet shared with Neal, is not necessarily news which whispers of a tougher time to come.
“If she was back in her old, normal life she would not be here at all.”
Although the news still heralds a time of change, and perhaps it wil be just as diffcult — in unexpected ways — for Neal. (But there spoilers lie: plenty of space for those in the comments below.)
She has been forced to grapple with her own powerlessness and lack of agency, been compelled to dig dip into strength she was not sure that she possessed. She has inhabited the crater in the gravel pit and when she climbs to the top of the hill to survey, she is unhappy with the view (and with this young woman whom Neal has retained to be their assistant in troubled times).
“Everything must be right at the surface with her, her attention and the whole of her personality coming straight at you, with an innocent and—to Jinny—a disagreeable power.”
She is seeking a new landscape, a new role to play in the story of her life. When a series of events affords her the opportunity to discover possibilities she has not allowed for, the story takes a turn (again, literally and figuratively).
“‘Bridges all along here,’ he said. ‘And where it’s not bridges it’s culverts. ’Cause it’s always flowing back and forth under the road. Or just laying there and not flowing anyplace.'”
The Borneo Swamp is an ordinary place with a bit of magic in it for Jinny. And, possibly, for readers.
What did you think about this story? Where do you believe it falls in the H – F – C – L – M scheme? Do you see connections with the title story? Does it make you want to read on in the collection?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the second story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week: “Family Furnishings”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.