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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Alice" by Elizabeth Harrower

Issue: Feb. 2, 2015

Story: "Alice"

Author: Elizabeth Harrower

Rating: $$$$

Review: For the first time in two years I've (gasp!) misplaced a copy of the New Yorker and had to read this story in two parts -- online and via the NYer's podcast of the author reading her own story. This was a fortunate accident for two reasons. First, as a mostly analog consumer of the New Yorker, I was forced to finally discover the New Yorker's fiction podcast series. Not that I'm going to give up reading my crumpled magazine on the exercise bike or in my easy chair at home of a Sunday morning...but I'm anxious to see if the fiction podcast has anything worthwhile to offer to my understanding of these stories. Secondly, I was allowed to hear "Alice" read in Elizabeth Harrower's sweet, gravelly, Australian/British voice, which gave the story a certain tenderness it might not have had otherwise. Would I have liked the story as much as I do had I been forced to read it in print? I think so. Cause it's a pretty damn good story.

While I am at times an unabashed literary lunkhead (a writer and reader of pulp, noir, and genre fiction, and I get bored very easily by heady, pretty writing in which nothing happens), I do actually have a great appreciation for literature that develops slowly and appeals to the higher human emotions, and I do have an affinity for a sweeping, epic tale of the inner growth of a lovable character, like we find in this gem of a story.

"Alice," in 3,000 or so words, spans the life of a young Scottish girl whose family moves to Australia after World War I. Alice is the eldest sister of two rambunctious (and later callous) brothers, and the daughter to a fiery, overbearing, indomitable mother. And so Alice's whole life and her very impression of herself are formed in response to these over-powering characters, and she does not really develop a sense of herself until she's an old woman. Alice's life is not an "interesting" life, per se, but it is her life and, despite being yielding and deferential, she does have a spirit of her own that she tends carefully until the end. And she is rewarded for that careful tending.

It's no minor achievement to successfully cover the entire life of a character, including all her major ups and downs, and the complete cycle of emotional development, within the pages of one short story. In fact, it's a pretty amazing achievement, almost like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man squeezed into a fraction of the space. Harrower's reduction of a Alice's life into short story, instead of making it seem insignificant, draws attention away from the daily, weekly, monthly, yearly ups and downs, and instead allows us to focus on the broader context of Alice's life and how the same forces that shaped her childhood continue to shape her as an adult and all the way into her old age. It's both sad and comforting; sad because we realize the same is probably true about ourselves, that we can never out-run certain hurts and deformations we suffered in our childhoods, and comforting because, at the same time, we realize that in spite of the turmoil that seems to engulf us constantly in life (What am I going to do with myself? I need more money!! What's that funny spot on my arm?? What if I'm actually an asshole and don't know it???) we're actually fighting far fewer fights than we thought. In fact, we may just be fighting one single fight our entire lives.

Harrower's tableau of Alice's life is constructed in such caring, insightful prose that she can capture the essence of a character, paint an entire, living portrait of a person or a relationship, in just a few lines. For example, when describing the relationship between the quiet, watchful Alice and her fiery, military General of a mother, Harrower writes:

"[Her mother] was bright, like anything burning: a match, a firecracker, a tree. Alice was as watchful as a small herbivorous animal. Mother and child were unsatisfied. They looked at each other."

You can just see this tall, lanky, fire-cracker of a woman looking curiously, almost contemptuously, at her tiny, meek daughter, with whom she shares nothing but hair color, and the little daughter looking back, her head lowered as if ready for rebuke, knowing only one truth: my mother is more powerful than I and I have no intention of challenging her.

Elizabeth Harrower
Harrower also has a way of grabbing onto deep truths about life, the kind of truths that resonate deeply with the reader and make you feel like you're in good hands: the hands of someone who has thought long and hard about life, been through some battles, and come back with some hard-won wisdom. For example, in describing the relationship between Alice and her first husband, Eric:

"He was impressed by the strength of her mysterious longings, but he was a follower, too, and two followers together are bound to lose the way."

Yet another really interesting technique Harrower uses in "Alice" is her use of metaphor. And no, I do not mean the "Alice is a metaphor for Jesus Christ" or "the white whale is God!" kind of metaphor, but a more direct type of metaphor which she weaves into the narrative to show how a character feels about something. Such as when she describes the way Alice feels as she approaches middle age:

"Years went by. The road where Alice had stopped now stretched far in either direction. She didn’t want to follow it. Occasionally, she looked along its length. She stood there with a little crowd of girls and women, all with ravishing red-gold curls. There had been this accident, so long ago that none of them could remember quite what it was. A horrible accident. They couldn’t get over it. And, unluckily, no one had ever passed by who understood this, or explained that you could walk away, sometimes, from bad accidents."

I quoted the whole passage here so that you can really understand the technique. In broad strokes, this passage defines Alice's whole problem. The road, naturally, is the course of Alice's life, and the "accident" is the accident of her being held in contempt for being the meek and shy girl of an overbearing mother who cared mostly for the boys. The "little crowd" represents Alice at the various stages of her life, all unable to solve the problem, to "walk away" from the accident. I find the use of a metaphor like this, in the middle of the story, to be an absolutely brilliant device.

Harrower uses this type of "active" metaphor later in the story, when she describes the way Alice continues to hold her mother and brothers in high regard, despite the fact they've treated her with disdain and disregard all her life:

"This did not prevent her, Alice being Alice, from restoring their images nightly with fresh paint and plaster and rearranging their robes in ever more becoming folds."

There is something so deep and elemental and easily relatable about these metaphors, that they actually resist being misunderstood, and yet they're brought off with a deft touch. Read in Harrower's voice (which I highly recommend) they almost sound like music.

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