Amongst the books I received at Christmas was a tiny sixty-page short story entitled ‘Queenie’, by an author I’d never heard of: Alice Munro, now eighty-three years old and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. As a writer of short stories myself, I was curious to find out how this author could have earned the most prestigious of prizes for such an underrated art form.
I was excited. Expecting miracles. I was not to be disappointed.
It’s a slow burn, which is what I like. Introductions are succinct and slick. No information overload here.
Queenie (real name, Lena) and Chrissy (the narrator) are half sisters, who leave their family home and follow very different paths. Their story is unremarkable, but that’s not what we’re digging for, as we read. We sift through Chrissy’s observations of the beautiful but tragic Queenie. We look for treasure, as she reveals little by little the faults in her sister’s marriage and hints at a possible alternative future. We hold our breath as, through Chrissy’s eyes, we take in the weight of a new perspective on someone she thought she knew, who suddenly seems strange to her. There is little of substance in the plot. But that is the point. This is no quick fix. The seeds are scattered and take time to grow.
What comes to the fore as we assess the girls’ individual predicaments, is the realisation that, with the passing of time, something precious, something familiar, is left behind. Not just for Chrissy, but for all of us. ‘Queenie’ captures and delivers an exquisite and ultimately overwhelming synthesis of those moments in life that pass us by and which are largely taken for granted, only coming back to haunt us later, arriving like shock waves, unsummoned and bewildering, as we perform our routine tasks, dumbed down and comfortable, as it were, in the microcosm of our present existence. A word, a phrase, a smile, the tilt of a head takes us away, then leaves us bereft, wanting to find a way back but not knowing how to get there.
This wonderful story reminds us that, at a certain point, we no longer look to the future hoping for excitement or novelty as often as we look into the past for comfort and reassurance, or, if we are honest, with regret. Alice Munro’s ‘Queenie’ once read, ripples through our minds, reminding us of those times, gone forever, that mean the world to us.
Quite simply a masterpiece.