Queenie by Alice Munro
Written in 1999, nearly 50 years after the Canadian born writer published her first short story, Queenie looks into the why and wherefore of the protagonist’s puzzling and surprising behaviour. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, Munro’s character complexity is artfully created in this seemingly simple but tragic story. The Queenie of the title is half-sister to the narrator, Chrissy, and whilst this tale gives us a little of their background, it is mostly concerned with their relationships.
Opening with her father’s exhortation to Chrissy to be kind to the new sister she’s about to meet, we quickly learn that he is out of touch on many levels. Although this is not Queenie’s own father, perhaps this early establishment of lack of awareness and care explains her subsequent choices. There is a sense in the story that this sort of disconnection is associated with a male assumption of hierarchy over women and children. The patriarchs and husbands have no apparent need to try and understand them or be sympathetic.
The naivety of both girls lays them wide open to potential damage, but in fact Chrissy is able to accurately describe her music teacher’s dominating behaviour in class (children are often the best judges of abusive behaviour if allowed to express it). Again, much later, on meeting Stan’s friend she has immediate insight. Queenie, on the other hand, has more personal knowledge of the neighbour through helping out in his home as a child so we, like her family are taken aback, and can only assume that this was enough to persuade her to trust the much older man.
Munro creates palpable dread and fear – not least with Queenie’s phrase, ‘Stan wouldn’t like it’. Immediately we know we are in the vicinity of male to female mental abuse. It isn’t horrific because there are touching moments between the two girls, both as children and later. A feature of Munro’s work is the moving back and forth from past to present, and the account of Stan’s former wife’s respiratory illness gives us an unconscious warning of a chilling scene in the second half.
The domestic and interpersonal detail is easily read and enlightening: Queenie distractedly forgetting to pour the water into the teapot and lifting her clothes to hide the letter; Chrissy seeing the cinema foyer and instantaneously realising why Queenie has died her hair black.
A tale of growing up, there is sadness and human regret – that familiar sense you often get in short stories of characters knowing something isn’t right, or even not wanting it to happen, but seeming to be unable unable to either muster the energy or the courage to alter the outcome.
Published by Chatto and Windus. Photo c Robert Howard