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I Was Young & In
Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
Toronto writer Alayna Munce’s debut novel, When I Was Young & In My Prime, is a moving account of an octogenarian couple’s decline towards death told from the perspective of their twenty-something granddaughter. This seemingly straightforward story is told in a fresh way: short narrative scenes are interspersed with poems, lists, journal entries, letters, and other literary devices, even an auctioneer’s repetitive monologue, all of which combine to form a more potent and original story than might be expected from its almost clichéd plot.
At the start of the book, Peter Friesen, the protagonist’s grandfather, is an able-bodied, healthy old curmudgeon taking care of his wife Mary, who suffers from Alzeimer’s. Peter has a strong connection with his never-named granddaughter, a poet and bartender who lives in the Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale more than an hour away from her grandparents’ rural home. She likes to visit and ask him about his childhood in Ukraine or his life as a young man in Manitoba, to learn the old ways of doing things like making sauerkraut, even to borrow some of his old clothing to wear. Clearly, they share a close bond.
Mennonite readers will immediately recognize the grandfather by his surname, but apart from his childhood memories of murder and mayhem in the anarchy of post-revolutionary Russia, there is little else for us to connect with on that level. Mary Friesen is not a Mennonite, and her husband only joins the United Church while wooing her. The young protagonist seems non-religious herself, but her husband, interestingly, is a practicing Catholic—though also an anarchist who reads Nietzsche. Beyond that, religious themes do not play a significant role in this novel.
At first, readers might anticipate the tragedy in the background of this book to be the grandmother’s deterioration and eventual death, but Munce artfully flips this expectation on its head. As the story progresses, Peter’s physical health declines more and more rapidly. First, Mary is moved into a rest home because he can no longer take care of her, and then he himself must give up their old house for a smaller apartment. He’s barely settled in there when a fall lands him in the hospital with a cracked hip. Peter never makes it back to his new apartment.
One short chapter in the middle of the book stands out for how it depicts a turning point in Peter’s final summer. “He’s always pictured himself dying on his own two feet—keeling over in his garden, falling back into the raspberry bushes with a hat on his head and a hoe in his hand. […] Now, suddenly, he’s afraid he won’t manage it. That he’ll end up in the Home like the others. Not for me, he’s always told himself. Now it strikes him for the first time that it’s not for him to decide.” He makes a poignant choice next: to clear out those overgrown raspberry bushes even if it kills him—and it nearly does.
The protagonist married young, at 19, and now seven years later, she and her philosopher-musician husband are fighting more than ever before. As she explains, “We don’t really fight—we freeze each other out. […] It never lasts long. Neither of us can stand it. Always the gradual thaw and before you know it we’re lovers again. It occurred to me the other day though that the thaw hasn’t been going quite through before the next freeze sets in, resulting in a king of underground permafrost that you wouldn’t notice unless you were digging.” Are their domestic difficulties related to her grandfather’s failing health? Perhaps.
Munce explores this story by examining it from all angles. A published poet herself, she inserts short poems here and there, often in the form of lists with titles like “things buried with us,” “things that still have not left her,” or “things that might survive a lifetime.” Never merely superfluous or showy, these poems always contain an important detail about the characters’ lives, or at the very least, a nugget of truth about the protagonist herself.
Like many first novels, this one seems autobiographical, but Munce never lets the story meander or stumble. She possesses surprising poise, transitioning from character to character without warning, confidently demanding her readers keep up with her wherever she takes them. These narrative risks pay great dividends, adding a fresh authenticity to what could otherwise become a maudlin story.
Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who recently completed
his first novel, a literary baseball story called Mudville.
Copyright © Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.