Review: “The New Yorker” June 27, 2011 Fiction

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“Gravel” by Alice Munro

A mother of two separates from her children’s biological father after learning she’s carrying the child of her lover, Neal, a ne’er-do-well actor with whom she works at the local theater. Neal is a wild child, aimless–and for her, long stuck in a humdrum existence, the lure of liberation promised by a life with him is quite tempting.

The story is told retrospectively through the questioning eyes of the mother’s youngest child, five at the time (unnamed and gender unspecified, though I’m assuming female). She has a sister four years her senior named Caro, whose death is the central event of the story. Caro, long unhappy with the separation of her parents and her mother’s ways, throws herself into a water-filled gravel pit to mock-save their dog Blitzee, leading to her own eventual drowning. At the time of the incident, the narrator, unable to understand her older sister’s actions, can only sit down in wait (in mortification or misunderstanding, she cannot recall) instead of calling for help; and Neal, as we later find out, is stoned at the time, negating any rescue effort to be made.

We come to see that in a way, everyone in this nuclear family shares the narrator’s narrowness of vision as a five-year-old:  The mother and Neal are both blindered, unable to fully understand (or in Neal’s case, assume) the responsibility of mother and father, to act as adults. Caro’s words earlier on in reference to their dog Blitzee–“I’m not going to disappear, and I’m always going to look after her”–thus hauntingly take on an ironic meaning:  For the child acting the adult, will there be anyone to act the adult for her? Also resonant is the appearance of a wolf mid-story, whom the family presumes to be a mother (of two, as Caro specifies, setting up a parallel between the human mother and her two children). The wolf mother is allowed to live and return to her cubs instead of being shot; but breaking with any parallels, ironically the human mother cannot come to fend for her own child.

Stories centered around deciphering the intention of a child, at an age when feelings are inarticulable, are nothing new (cf. Ian McEwan’s “Atonement”). But Munro’s story is intriguing nonetheless. Through the various characters’ explanations for the death, Munro presents several interpretations that her readers might themselves propose. One that I gravitate toward (posited by the narrator’s partner Ruthann) is that Caro’s death is significant in that it proved a point to snap their mother back to her senses. Unwitting or not, Caro effected necessary change for her mother and for the family.

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