Thursday, November 09, 2006

Alayna Munce, When I Was Young & In My Prime

After more than a year of waiting for the proper time, I was finally able to read Alayna Munce’s first novel When I Was Young & In My Prime (Madeira Park BC: Nightwood Editions, 2005), reading it on the flight from Ottawa to Vancouver to Prince George. A Toronto-based poet and fiction writer, she has three times won prizes in Grain magazine’s annual Short Grain Contest, won the second place in 2003 in the travel-writing category of the CBC Literary Awards, and was included in the anthology Breathing Fire 2: Canada’s New Poets (2004). After she read at the ottawa international writers festival as part of a three fiction writer event, and was easily the strongest writer. When I Was Young & In My Prime is a wonderful collage of overlapping narratives, diary entries, lost thoughts, poetry that weave together the story of a narrator in her twenties against the lives of her grandparents and their slow demise through Altzheimer’s. As the narrator negotiates her way through her own life, married and individually, Munce blends the essential with the mundane in ways that echo the way people think, and the way people live.
You don’t have to do much to speak volumes in your last days. He’d make a batch of muffins and a pot of coffee and invite a nursing home volunteer up to his apartment to share them, and it was a grand gesture, containing a lifetime. Each day, on his way to visit her in Extended Care, he walked around the atrium of the old age apartments bearing the cockatiel on his shoulder, and it was an act stunning in its generosity.

Terrible to say, in a way, but there’s a glamour in decay. All the sugars rising to the surface. Even the making of wine is a kind of controlled decomposition.

The last days have an atmosphere in which everything stands out, backlit, finite. Photographers call it magic hour. As if death, closer now, closer every day, radiates a kind of pre-storm light.

And then that pre-storm light lasts for a spell after death—for the living. Basic things take on new definition, demand attention but resist naming. The world flares and rears under me these days in areas I always thought of as solid ground (or, more precisely, didn’t think of at all). I slide off the slippery fact of things existing. I say to myself, you could your whole life saying to yourself, this could be the last time I ride a ferry, see a black and white movie, taste brandy, stand on tiptoe, roll out pie dough, write a letter, stamp it and drop it in the mailbox, see a fox up close. (p 230)
Munce’s novel is a beautiful and heartbreaking collage work writing the remnants of lives broken up and sold off in parts as well as what else gets rescued and passed on, and writing the foundations on what other lives, such as the narrator’s own, as well as her grandparents, are built upon.

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