WHEN I WAS YOUNG AND IN MY PRIME by Alayna Munce (Nightwood), 256 pages, $18.95 paper. Rating: NNNN
If the well-mannered audience of poetry devotees assembled at Harbourfront's Brigantine Room had been given whiskey and score cards at the launch of Breathing Fire 2: Canada's New Poets (an anthology I was also a part of), they'd have held up 10s for a curly-haired, unassuming young Parkdale denizen. A captivated hush fell over the room as she read poetic excerpts from her then-upcoming novel, When I Was Young And In My Prime.
Munce has an astounding ability to innovate stylistically without alienating the reader. In this brave pastiche of letters, diary entries, dialogue, transcribed medical texts, poems and straight-up story, she brings poetry to the novel without making it incomprehensible or inaccessible.
The book's unnamed narrator, a poet living in Parkdale, pays the rent by pulling pints in a local bar. She watches her grandparents' decline, reflecting on her own spur-of-the-moment marriage and her big-city life. In authentic and rich detail, the author renders the complex emotions that arise when you watch a loved one succumb to Alzheimer's.
Each chapter is written from a different person's perspective: that of her grandmother, grandfather, the friends and strangers who populate their lives, even the voice of an auctioneer as the family farm is sold. Inhabiting these different characters, Munce deftly and without sentimentality spins a beautifully written story about family history and how lives can change from one generation to the next. From the specific objects found in her grandfather's woodshed to the simple small talk made with bar patrons, she describes the awkward space between rural and urban, old and young, hopeless and hopeful.
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