Remember when “Gravel”, in Dear Life, had readers considering the way that life can shift beneath one’s feet, like an aggregation of water-worn stones readjusting?

1990; Penguin, 1991

1990; Penguin, 1991

This story has one considering the formation of frazil ice, the way that loose and randomly shaped ice-crystals can form sporadically and block waterways at certain temperatures.

“Oh, What Avails” is a long story (more than 30 pages) with three separate segments, and the frazil ice only appears in the second one, but the idea of a change-in-state, the question of shifting relationships, stretches throughout.

At the heart of the story is Joan, who anchors the second segment as a married woman.

A man offers to take her and her husband to see the frazil ice on the Ottawa River, but only Joan drives out to the river.

Above the rapids, the ice doesn’t form solidly and because the water continues to move beneath it, it remains sort of slushy.

Above the deepest spots, the ice mounds up, so that even without ever going beneath the surface of the water, one can determine the deepest points in the river.

When Joan looks back at that day, there with this man, a geologist, John Brolier and his two children and his host’s two children, something shifted for Joan.

Joan’s marriage isn’t frazil-y; it’s frozen solid. Her husband is intelligent and trustworthy and their marriage is “commodious enough”. She concludes that her attraction to this other man has little to do with her marriage.

What she wants now “appears to be something that a person not heard from in her marriage, and perhaps not previously heard from in her life, might want”.

She seems to have entered some other state of being, and as much as she recognizes that it seems incredible to onlookers (those who become aware, that is), she seems to barely believe it herself.

“How could her husband believe that she could fall in love with a man who wore a fringe of thinning hair combed down over his forehead, who had rather narrow shoulders and a gap between his front teeth, five children from two wives, an independent income, an excitable and pedantic way of talking, and a proclaimed interest in the writings of Alan Watt? (Even when the time came when he had to believe it, he couldn’t.)”

But Joan’s affections are not the only puzzling emotions in the story. At least one character in each segment has assembled a “night of memories and sighs” that they have consecrated to a loved one, as the title suggests*, although their affections are not reciprocated.

The first segment of the story is rooted in the past, when Joan and Morris Fordyce were younger; the third segment focuses on Joan and Morris later in life.

(If the surname sounds familiar, it’s because Neil in “Five Points” and Karin’s ex-husband, Brent, in “Pictures of the Ice” worked for Fordyce, seasonally.)

Morris lost an eye in an unfortunate encounter with a garden rake when he was five years old. Ever since, he has worn a pair of glasses with one lens darkened to cover that loss; even though as an adult he might have replaced it with an artificial eye, he has never ‘fussed’ and ‘fiddled’ with it.

“All it would entail is Morris’s admission that he’d like a change. That it isn’t shameful, to try to turn in the badge misfortune has hung on you.”

Morris has experience with shame. When he was in high school, his mother (who liked to be called Ma Fordyce) pushed him into asking a neighbour girl to a dance; Matilda was a great beauty but had no date for this dance, but her mother shrieked and carried on at the idea that Morris had dared to ask.

(Matilda was such a great beauty that both Ma Fordyce and Joan found her fascinating as well, even developing something like a crush on this mesmerizing character, although their interest dissipated as Matilda learned to downplay her beauty and simultaneously made choices which reflected poorly on her in the townspeople’s perspective.)

Matilda might not have accepted Morris’ invitation anyhow; she had been seeing a man ten years older than she, which caused considerable upset in town (and, later, when this relationship develops further, it has a scandalous aspect to it).

Nonetheless, as the years have passed, Morris has frequently escorted Matilda on a number of occasions, just as his mother had suggested in the past; Matilda’s great love has proven dissatisfying in many ways, and ironically, Morris finds his “arrangement” with Matilda dissatisfying as well.

(Perhaps in this case, ‘dissatisfying’ is too weak a term; it is, arguably ‘heart-breaking’ for Morris.)

Readers are not fully immersed in either Morris’ or Matilda’s romantic disappointments, for Joan observes them from afar; however, while there is not a great deal of emotional resonance to her perspective on these extraneous “memories and sighs”, readers have a front-row seat to the discord in her own life.

What happens when one admits that one wants a change? Wherein lies the shame when one seeks to turn in a badge of misfortune? And what of a situation in which there is no misfortune but one suddenly seeks a transformation?

From the shore, and from the reader’s perspective, unexpected depths can be spotted, when the frazil ice forms.

If you’ve read this story, what do you think? And, if you haven’t, do you think you’d enjoy such a work by Alice Munro?

* Walter Savage Landor (1775–1864), “Rose Aylmer”

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 I plan to read the stories in Friend of My Youth throughout this month; this is the eighth story in the collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.