“Jakarta” Alice Munro

“Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days.” So said Virginia Woolf.

Love Good Woman Munro

McClelland & Stewart, 1998

And although Kath and Sonje are not writing books – and not reading Woolf either – they are composing the narratives of their lives.

They sit on the beach, in a “place of their own”, apart and “behind some large logs”.

Is it much different from the caves paved with linoleum in “Lives of Girls and Women”? This sphere inhabited by women?

There, they are separate from men, yes.

But also, in this case, Kath and Sonje are separated from other women as well.

And they have acted to separate themselves, to have a barricade between them and these other women.

Other women who are, what? More feminine? Less independent? More loved? Less valued?

“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.”

There, on a platform, these women – archetypal mothers in a later stage of life – perform.

Pehaps this seems an old-fashuioned notion, and its true that Munro was born in 1931, but this is not an outdated idea. It frequently surfaces in contemporary fiction as well.

Take, for example, this excerpt from Stacey May Fowles’ Infidelity (one of the novels that I inhaled in a single-sitting last year, which should have perched on my favourites list, given how often I think back to the characters therein):

“Aaron and Ronnie travelled in a circle of friends who lived their lives like they were collecting Monopoly cards. The baby card would simply complete the set. A natural progression that at first would come eventually and then would come immediately. No questions asked. Ronnie was not entirely sure who had made this decision, it was simply one that had happened, that had been expected, and didn’t seem entirely negative, so she has been swept along with it without question.”

Neither Kath nor Sonje travel with such a circle of friends, but of the two women in Munro’s story, Kath is wandering closer to their territory.

“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.”

Love Good Woman Paperback Munro

Penguin, 1999

Like the characters in Stacey May Fowles’ novel, Kath and Kent are collecting their set of Monopoly cards, but Kath sets up her spot on the beach with baby Noelle to one side, with Sonje.

Kath seems to aspire to something else, to some other idea of womanhood. Perhaps because of this, she is drawn to Sonje, whose marriage to Cottar is quite unlike Kath’s and Kent’s.

But there, on the beach, Kath and Sonje argue about something. It seems to be an argument about a D.H. Lawrence story, “The Fox”. But it’s actually an argument about the ways in which the two readers interpret the decision the female character makes.

“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.”

Both women are tremendously invested in the outcome of Lawrence’s story.

Both women are tremendously invested in the outcome of their own narratives.

Ultimately there are many threads left untied in these narratives.

What are readers to make of the older man at Mrs. Dalloway’s — oops, I mean Sonje’s — party, with both his wife and his mistress in attendance?

What are we to think of Amy’s make-over: is she readying Kath for her role on the platform, on the stage?

And are we to believe that Cottar has perished overseas in Jakarta, or to imagine him reclining on the beach in Jakarta (certainly Alice Munro readers know that characters fleeing relationships can travel great distances to do so), in a place of his own.

What do you think?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the second  story in the collection of the same name. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next week: “Cortes Island”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.



  1. Angela Hall January 20, 2014 at 11:18 am - Reply

    This is my first Alice Munro story in a few years–I’m jumping on board with this blog to reread all of the stories as I’ve read them all (except for the last three) but so long ago. It’s so good to be back!

    What I love about Munro’s stories is what she doesn’t say. In Jakarta,

    What is it that Kent has on his mind that he wants to ask Sonje about the night of the farewell party? Perhaps he wants to ask Sonje about Kath’s state of mind with regard to their marriage at that time.

    Did Kent see Kath dancing with a stranger on that night?

    What happened to Sonje and Kath’s relationship after the party in question?

    Is Sonje “bonkers” to think her husband might still be alive in Jakarta? Personally, I don’t think it matters. Kent is disappointed with each of his reunions on this trip and he realizes he’s not going to have a satisfying/clarifying catharsis with Sonje.

    As with so many of Alice Munro’s short stories, a reader is left with intriguing questions unanswered. I believe this is the strength of her writing. I know some people dislike this about her stories but I myself love it.

    • Buried In Print January 21, 2014 at 5:37 pm - Reply

      That’s true: we have to wonder what Kent is looking for. And we have to make room for that as readers, even though the story began with our wondering what the wives were looking for, the Monicas as well as Sonje/Kath.

      “The moment when he realized that the person he was talking to, the person he had made a point of seeking out, was not going to give him whatever it was he had come for.”

      Perhaps we are given a clue, as to what he’s looking for with Sonje when he visits her, with what he does not find in his conversations with these other people who have disappointed him; he finds them closed-in and predictable, uninteresting, even his own children’s lives do not engage his interest. So maybe Sonje now falls into that category and he was searching for the opposite qualities in the encounter?

      It does seem possible that Kent saw Kath dancing; he answers her question evasively. And surely Sonje would have seen Amy take Kath through the bedroom for the make-over, and that was after (I think?) Sonje told Kath that Cottar had said he wanted to sleep with Amy that night, so readers have to wonder if that had something to do with the changes in their friendship too.

      Is it easier or harder to try to tease out these possibilities in a shorter story than a longer one, like the title story? Not that the “answer” matters – for I don’t think we’re intended to pursue a single answer – but it’s interesting to consider all the possibilities.

  2. Sandra January 20, 2014 at 9:19 am - Reply

    What do I think? Hmmmm…there is the fact that Munro says “Kath feels their(women on the beach) threat particularly” but also the fact that she has a child. And then, “when she nurses her baby she often reads a book”. And Kath is reading short stories by Katherine Mansfield who was far from traditional.Also that Kath lived in her cottage before the baby was born. When discussing the story, Kath is bothered by something: “she can’t mention it or think about it. Is Kent something like Stanley?” Stanley was described as pushy, greedy and self-satisfied. The make-up application by Amy on Kath perhaps does mean that Kath is moving away from her life: she does a “mating” dance on the dock with an unknown partner and she doesn’t get to the baby in time to feed her before Kent brings the bottle from home. Sonje says “my happiness depends on Cottar” and Kath doesn’t want this to be true of herself but also doesn’t want to let on to Sonje or have Sonje think that she had missed out on love. After this Sonje and Cottar move away and the women’s lives change. Lastly, there is Kent’s opinion at the end: is that Munro’s opinion too?
    Like you said: “many threads left untied in these narratives”. Almost a mini-mystery.

    • Buried In Print January 21, 2014 at 4:39 pm - Reply

      “A thought that has to do with not having to go on, to go home.”

      Yes, what are we to make of that last line?

      Kent has that thought sitting with Sonje who is expressing her belief that Cottar had taken off to Jakarta to escape, years before when they were all still young. And Kent has just remembered that Cottar had once asked him (being a pharmacist) about what he knew about tropical diseases, which might have been preparing his cover story. So perhaps Cottar did not want to have to go on, with Sonje, with his life in that cottage or caring for his mother. Or perhaps it is simply Kent’s perspective on what he himself felt, or Kath?

      I thought it was interesting that Sonje puts aside Howard Fast (which apparently Cottar recommended: I wonder why?) and picks up Kath’s books instead. Does she simply not enjoy Fast’s fiction, or is she deferring to a kind of authority that she thinks Kath possesses in terms of literary recommendations?

  3. heavenali January 19, 2014 at 11:30 am - Reply

    Lovely review – your enthusiasm for Alice Munro always makes me want to read her. I have read one collection several years ago, and have her most recent collection tbr.

    • Buried In Print January 21, 2014 at 4:29 pm - Reply

      I saw Dear Life in a pic on your blog recently and I wondered if you would get to it soon. They are great stories too, and I think they would pull you back into her earlier work once more.

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