Too Much Happiness, Too Much Grief
- Anne Michaels (Author)
The Winter Vault. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Alice Munro (Author)
Too Much Happiness. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Beverley Haun
Anne Michaels writes the novel as poetry; Alice Munro writes the short story as novel. Between the two we see the ideas of genre pushed until the conventions do not hold, and we are left immeasurably richer for the changes.
The Winter Vault is named for a kind of structure familiar in Canada. Traditionally, when the ground was too frozen to bury a body until the spring thaw, that body was kept at a cemetery in a winter vault to await interment. In Ann Michaels’ novel, this expediency of a cold climate serves both as a seasonal practicality and as a metaphor—the emotional space, the season of grief, that we all occupy as we respond to deep loss. It is not only loss of people but also of place and the many possible responses to such loss that form the basis of the world created here by Michaels.
The novel is divided into three parts: “The Riverbed,” “The Stone in the Middle,” and “Petrichor.” “The Riverbed” follows the courtship and early marriage of Avery Escher, an English engineer, and Jean Shaw, a Canadian botanist. They meet in Quebec in the late 1950s amid the disruption and displacement of communities that preceded the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway. They marry and move to an Egypt experiencing a similar destruction of ancient Nubian towns along the Nile to make way for the Aswan Dam. Theirs is a relationship based on talk as they conjure themselves for each other through their stories of family, childhood, and formative experience. As if to counteract the destruction they witness, they also share an urgency to tell each other all the disparate facts and wisdom they have collected throughout their lives—esoteric points about plants, engineering, and cultural practices. As Avery tells Jean, his father taught him that “no two facts are too far apart to be put together.” All of their shared memory is told in lyrical prose that washes over the senses and invites a slow reading to fully absorb.
In the second part, the Egyptian honeymoon gives way to great personal loss and they struggle to overcome their tragedy. Avery turns to architecture, Jean plants obsessively. A Polish Canadian artist befriends Jean during this period, and his stories of suffering in the Second World War further illustrating how loss changes the survivor, both diminishing possibilities and making experiences more acute. The third part is very brief, and the title says it all. “Petrichor” is the name given to the aroma that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell. Plant oils are released, washed from the earth’s pores to fill the air with the scent of renewal.
Toward the end of The Winter Vault, Michaels writes, “Our memories contain more than we remember: those moments too ordinary to keep, from which, all of our lives, we drink.” Munro provides keys into those memories we are surprised to find we all hold in common.
Two observations are foremost in my mind after reading Too Much Happiness. The first is the way in which Munro makes the particular universal. To enter and engage with an Alice Munro story is to see what you think you know with fresh eyes. You graduate from the reading with a heightened awareness and find yourself recalibrating your way of making sense of the stories all around you. The second observation comes from a statement by the main character in the last story and namesake of the collection, the great nineteenth-century mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky: “She was learning, quite late, what many people around her appeared to have known since childhood—that life can be perfectly satisfying without major accomplishments . . . There need be no agonizing.” Here is the paradox of this collection. While Sophia recognizes late in life that there need be no agony, eight of the other stories pinpoint the episode or choices made in otherwise unaccomplished lives that lead to varying degrees of agony. Agony still finds a way.
There are ten stories in Too Much Happiness. Eight share the point of view of older narrators looking back to pivotal formative incidents from their youth. Six bear witness to the socially sanctioned dynamics and consequences of women dominated by male power in relationships. Three stories take place in the present. Two have male protagonists. All deserve multiple readings.
While murder, jealousy, humiliation, and betrayal give the first eight stories their impetus, “Wood,” the ninth story, acts as a counterpoint and prepares the way for Sophia in “Too Much Happiness.” “Wood” is a fairytale, covert but classic. Roy, a quiet furniture repairman, is married to Lea, a garrulous and energetic woman who works as a dentist’s receptionist. She approves Roy’s repair business, his obligation to others, to his own preference for cutting firewood. He tends to visit the bush when she is at work and finds himself increasingly, secretly drawn to the bush and his love of trees. As a season of ill health withers Lea’s vibrancy, she seems “stuck in a nest of brambles.” With his wife lost to him, Roy spends more and more time in the bush until Percy, a local trickster lurking at its edge, tells Roy a tale that shifts his boreal enthralment from love to greed. He enters the bush, he hurries, he missteps, he breaks his ankle. Painfully crawling for hours, Roy pulls himself out from the centre of the woods. When he finally emerges, severing the hold the forest had on him, he is astonished to find his wife waiting, revitalized. Lea had languished as his obsession with the bush increased. Released now from their spell, she is miraculously restored to him. But he feels only tentative joy lest he lose her again. He is still befogged by the woods’ enchantment, although he is beginning to see how it is “tangled up in itself,” dense and secret.
“Wood” is a seemingly gentle tale of rural Southern Ontario, yet it holds the reader in an iron grip, unable to anticipate the ending, astonished to find herself also under a spell—until Munro deliberately, deftly, chooses to release her. Paradoxically the best story in the collection, it is no better than the rest.
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MLA: Haun, Beverley. Too Much Happiness, Too Much Grief. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 169 - 170)
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