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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.