2006 TRILLIUM BOOK AWARD NOMINEE & NATIONAL BESTSELLER
"A deeply humane, deeply human book."
- Michael Crummey
"Moving, funny, full of hard truths."
- Jim Bartley, The Globe and Mail
What's left of us when we're gone? In When I Was Young and In My Prime, a young woman watches her grandparents begin to decline. As she sorts through the couple's belongings, she reflects on the untold stories and unsung bonds that make up our lives. Meanwhile, modern urban life places strains on her own marriage and on her sense of what, ultimately, we owe each other.
Weaving together voices, diary entries, poems, conversations and lists, When I Was Young and In My Prime cuts to the heart of our search for intimacy and family, for what makes life meaningful and love real. The result is a smart, moving novel about personal and cultural decline, dignity and work, the urban and the rural, the old and the new, and the search for something ageless.
Heartfelt, funny, full of hard truths
By JIM BARTLEY
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, October 15, 2005 Page D7
When I was Young and In My Prime
By Alayna Munce
Nightwood, 249 pages, $18.95
In the Toronto Reference Library, a young woman stands at a copy machine overlooking a panorama of diverse patrons visible on five floors stacked round a cavernous centre. "I think of Dante, his rings." She recalls a friend who thinks "the hell realms are here on earth, and we all go in and out of them."
Alayna Munce has primed us well for this moment, 70 pages into her debut novel. With a refreshing absence of elegy or pathos, her opening has sketched a concise portrait of pain, failure and loss in four generations of a family, from revolutionary Ukraine to the grotty streets of a "once-grand, now verging-on-squalid" Toronto neighbourhood.
Bicycling back to Parkdale and her apartment in a sagging old mansion, our un-named narrator considers the perils of city biking even as the surge and dodge of it exhilarates her. "It comes to me that fear of death is, from another angle, love of the world."
We've seen the love (for her musician-philosopher husband) and the death (her great granddad murdered by roving bandits), and we've watched as her mother's mother succumbs to Alzheimer's. There's more to come. What's most striking about it all is the lightness of touch -- and the gravity infusing it nonetheless.
Our gal works nights in a bar and days in a nursing home, paying off student debts by pulling beer and bathing old folks who can't bathe themselves, or no longer grasp the concept. Munce's descriptions in these sections can feel like actual sensory input; she imagines the inner life of her narrator's granddad with equal acuity. Peter, dealing with the disappearance of his wife's dentures into the lost-item abyss of the Alzheimer's unit, recalls the time when her teeth first began to come out at night.
"I used to look at her beside me sometimes. Sleeping away there. Toothless. Face sunken like a landslide. Whole landscape changed." The passage, a page-and-a-half of nuance and compression, is moving, funny, full of hard truths and (Lawren Harris makes a picturesque appearance) capriciously Canadian.
A published poet, Munce makes her narrator one, too. The resulting poetry is sometimes apt commentary, sometimes a blunt underscoring of what the reader already knows.
Subtextual Big Questions occasionally morph, alas, into real text. Drifting through a shift at the bar, our narrator feels distanced, an observer: "What do we mean when we say we know a person? How can we know anything?"
Sometimes the novel's random riffs on urban life have a cut-and-paste feel, as if pulled from the writer's notebook simply to display talent rather than drive the story. Munce might have asked more often "Why this? Why here?" There's a recurring tendency to over-write. Why, for instance, must sour milk clot "unco-operatively"? Why does the fresh carton carried home have to be "a tipped column of sloshing white liquid"? This is descriptive window dressing and completely unneeded; we know Munce has the goods.
A closing exchange of tender thoughts and laden silences between the narrator and her failing grandmother decisively jettisons the writerly bag of tricks. The few dozen words distil this heartfelt work to its essence.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.
"With a refreshing absence of elegy or pathos, [Munce] has sketched a concise portrait of pain, failure and loss in four generations of a family, from revolutionary Ukraine to the grotty streets of a 'once-grand, now verging-on-squalid' Toronto neighbourhood... What's most striking about it all is the lightness of touch -- and the gravity infusing it nonetheless... [M]oving, funny, full of hard truths."
- Jim Bartley, The Globe and Mail
"An exquisite debut novel."
- Between the Covers, CBC Radio
"A powerful, poignant and elegiac book, a last defiant stand against the insidious pull of erasure... you find yourself irresistibly drawn into the inner worlds of the characters, genuinely connecting to and caring about their lives... [T]his family's refusal to let go both breaks your heart and lingers in your mind long after you've put the book down."
- Chandra Mayor, Herizons
"Munce blends the essential with the mundane in ways that echo the way people think, and the way people live... 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."
- rob mclennan
"If the well-mannered audience of poetry devotees assembled at Harbourfront had been given whiskey and score cards at the launch of Breathing Fire 2: Canada's New Poets, 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 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... Inhabiting 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."
- Zoe Whittall, NOW Magazine
"When I Was Young & In My Prime... is a mixture of journal entries, poetry, letters, conversations, pages from a medical text, even lists, given from a number of viewpoints. If this sounds like an unusual collection rather than a novel, it is; but it is also skillfully woven to create a story and develop ideas that will linger in the reader's mind ...[I]f you want something that makes you think, and that stays in your mind for days afterwards, then read When I Was Young & In My Prime."
- Donna Gamache, Prairie Fire
"Alayna Munce vividly captures a family struggling with the decline of its elders in this powerful novel... The result is something very lifelike -- complex and potentially confusing but also beautifully tragic. Munce masterfully switches between prose and poetry as she layers detail and emotion."
- Nancy Duncan, Broken Pencil
"Linguistic devices are woven delightfully into the narrative to add detail and nuance to a quiet, gentle story that is, surprisingly, a page-turner... I am left feeling incredibly warm toward these characters... saddened by their decline, and delighted by their histories."
- Jessica Shulman, The Village Gleaner
"A beautifully told story of family, love, life and aging... Everyone I have told to read it has thanked me - some with tears in their eyes. Don't miss this one!"
- Mary Trentadue, bookseller, 32 Books Co., North Vancouver
"This book is like the nail-and-screw cabinet your grandfather spent a lifetime filling with mismatched nuts and bolts, salvaged finishing nails and old keys, rubber bands, receipts, coins from other countries. Whole histories in each tiny drawer. Alayna Munce inhabits a remarkable variety of voices and landscapes to portray an elderly couple's slow physical collapse and the troubles of a young marriage. It's her fidelity to the truth of the world as each character sees it that makes When I Was Young such a deeply humane, deeply human book."
- Michael Crummey, author of The Wreckage and River Thieves
"If the complex swirl of human memory was unfolded and pressed to paper, it might look like this... Each slice of language stands alone as self-contained art - the words seems as carefully exposed as the people they describe... Munce achieves what creative writing students are always nagged to do: show and not tell. She doesn't try too hard to be profound."
- Lauren Schachter, The Martlet
"A compassionate and complex account of one family facing the inevitable. Again and again Alayna Munce nails the particular -- detail, feeling, word -- with unflinching precision and beauty."
- Alison Pick, author of The Sweet Edge
"...a remarkable first novel... Munce has an eagle eye for the details of the grandparents' lives and possessions--boxes of costume jewellery, board games, mason jars, 'sometimes a nest of old filigreed keys, a greasy tangle of string, shoe tacks in with a flat tin of lozenges'--and the problems of disposing them... [I]t's a novel that deserves attention for the portraits it paints of old age, family devotion and despair."
- Carol Matthews, Event
"[A] book with a palpable wisdom, which is refreshing... [G]reat Canadian novels sneak up on us, as humble offerings by Canadians rather than self consciously Canadian offerings. To say this book has some good moments is an understatement: everyone will find something of value in such a carefully written and subtly meaningful book."
- Alex Boyd, The Danforth Review