All love is ambivalent, said the playwright Tony Kushner, and ambivalence kills. The tales in Alice Munro's The View from Castle Rock are full of that sentiment. This 13th collection, which the 75-year-old Munro has said will be her last, is a departure in that the stories aren't wholly fictional. They're based on what Munro imagines to be the experiences of the Laidlaw family, her father's people, who emigrated from a Scottish parish that possesses no advantages to find an only marginally less hardscrabble existence in Canada. Thus, some of the stories have an unfinished feel about them the saga of the Laidlaws continues, after all. Though Munro begins her tales with a jovial account of her ancestor Will O'Phaup, most of the Laidlaws tend to be gruff, unsentimental and withholding. Love is not spoken of. Spouses stay together out of obligation and necessity, children are not cosseted, parenthood is another responsibility in a long, tiring string of duties. By the time Munro, or a version of herself, shows up, the Laidlaws are still poor and unimportant, and ambivalence rules.
Munro's narrator is a girl much like the young heroines of her short stories: restless, too smart for her own good and a little self-absorbed. Her quiet and dependable father is also capable of brutality; he was a fur trapper, then ran a fur farm. He slaughtered horses to feed the foxes he harvested, and beat his daughter with a belt. Her mother sells those furs at what passes in their world for a ritzy hotel; she then succumbs to Parkinson's, a disease so rare and misunderstood that her care by her family was cold, impatient, untender. Munro describes them all with her usual lucidity and unerring eye for detail and character. Even her description of the topography of Southern Ontario is gorgeous. The View from Castle Rock is a sad and beautifully written book. Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.