Queenie by Alice Munro

21 Nov

I’ve found it difficult to blog lately as I’ve been snowed under with uni work, which has left me little time to write or read anything that isn’t a textbook.  Probably because of this, I suddenly felt the urge today to enter a fictional world, something away from cold equations and facts, so I found myself wandering round Waterstone’s before meeting my friend at lunch, looking for something small that would satisfy my literary craving.

I came across a tiny little book and was immediately drawn to it, especially as I can’t justify spending too much time reading for pleasure at the moment.  The book I picked up was a short story called ‘Queenie’ by Alice Munro and branded across the top of it was ‘Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.’  I’m never too sure quite how I feel about all these literary awards; many times, I’ve read books on the basis that they have won an award or received a glittering review in a newspaper that I read, only to be disappointed.  That said, it ticked the necessary boxes at the time and was only £1.99 so there wasn’t much to complain about in that department.

queenie

Needless to say, then, I started reading ‘Queenie’ with great expectations.  I’ve always been intrigued with the short story form and ‘Queenie’ was a great insight into short story writing at its most proficient.  Immediately I was immersed into the protagonist’s world, and her account of her stepsister – the enigmatic, troubled and idealistic Queenie.  The story revolves around Chrissy (the protagonist) recalling the day Queenie left home to marry a much older man.  Munro writes concisely and unpretentiously and the reader learns about Queenie through Chrissy’s eyes and fantasies.

I especially liked Munro’s characterisation of Queenie’s husband, Mr Vorguilla, who is portrayed to be a repressed, controlling man with violent tendencies.  This is relatively straightforward to portray but what is skilful is Munro’s ability to incite some form of empathy for such an outwardly unlikeable character through fleeting moments of tenderness.

The reader sees only snippets of Queenie via Chrissy’s memories and it is clear that Chrissy has always admired and looked up to her stepsister.  Already the name Queenie conjures an image of a flamboyant and outgoing creature and it isn’t long before I found myself desperately wanting Queenie to find happiness.

One thing is clear: Munro portrays the loss that Chrissy feels and the complexities of the human character beautifully.  In particular, the often misunderstood and fraught relationship between the sexes is explored adeptly here, with Queenie’s sad ingrained beliefs of marriage and men, evident in her knowing comments – ‘Men are not normal, Chrissy’- that block any chance of stability and happiness for her.

I found the ending incredibly moving – Chrissy, much older now, married with grown children, describes how she has started seeing Queenie now and then randomly.  The normalcy of Chrissy’s life which seems to have followed the normal route deeply contrasts with Queenie’s life or the life that we imagine she went on to lead.

Chrissy has never been able to let go of Queenie and the short story is infused with a sense of loss and regret.  At the end, Chrissy, unoccupied as an older woman is less able to stop thoughts of Queenie infiltrating her life again and she starts to see her everywhere. One time she sees Queenie as a ‘wrinkled woman with a crooked mouth’ in the supermarket and  Chrissy walks on by, supposedly content to continue in ignorance with her new life.  However, of course, she isn’t content with this and then returns afterwards to try to find her.  She has spent her whole life wanting to be close to the elusive Queenie and even at the end of her years, Queenie still remains out of reach.

Beautiful and moving without being sentimental.  I am definitely looking forward to discovering more of Munro’s writing.

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