x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Munro on familiar ground in new collection of unhappily ever after tales

Inhabiting the small towns of south-eastern Canada, Alice Munro's new collection of stories plant themselves on familiar ground.

Alice Munro's latest book is set in small, grey towns in southern Canada with only one main street.
Alice Munro's latest book is set in small, grey towns in southern Canada with only one main street.

Few writers can say as much, in as few words, as Alice Munro. For instance, in her new short story Amundsen, the young narrator, Vivien Hyde, who is the sole teacher at a remote tuberculosis sanitarium, and her older fiancé, Dr Alister Fox, the facility's physician, are walking to his car, to drive to the local justice of the peace to be married. Alister "gets in, settles himself and turns the key in the ignition, then turns it off".

For the next page, Vivien simply describes the hardware store next to the car, the wooden house across the street, and a parking manoeuvre by a delivery lorry, but the mere phrase about turning off the ignition has quietly told the reader that a momentous change has taken place. It will soon be apparent that the wedding, like the ignition, is off.

Then again, as a Munro creation, Vivien shouldn't have expected to get married happily ever after. Not much more happiness seems in store for the characters in Dear Life, the newest collection by the multiple-award-winning Canadian author. (Among other accolades, Munro - who published her first collection in 1968 - has won the Governor General's Literary Award, Canada's highest literary honour, three times; the Man Booker International Prize; the National Book Critics Circle Award; and the PEN/Malamud Award, and has often been suggested for a Nobel Prize.)

While there are a couple of weak entries, Dear Life is, for the most part, classic and brilliant Munro.

Nearly all of the tales are set in her trademark territory - small, faded towns in south-eastern Canada near Lake Huron. These are towns like the fictitious Maverley, in the story Leaving Maverley, with one cinema, one main street, one day-shift policeman and one on the night shift. They take place mainly from the 1930s through the 1970s, usually focusing on middle-aged women, and a few men, in failed or flailing relationships, or none at all.

Sometimes the characters are desperate for human connection. Why else would Vivien settle for Alister's "dry-lipped kiss, brief and formal, set upon me with hasty authority"?

Greta, the unhappily married young mother in the first story, To Reach Japan, fantasises for months about a newspaper columnist who gave her a ride home from a party and made it clear that he wasn't interested in her. Just before asking whether to turn right on Marine Drive, the columnist had casually told Greta, "I was wondering whether I would or wouldn't kiss you and decided I wouldn't." Yet she writes to him. What about the non-kiss? "She simply cancelled it out. Forgot about it entirely."

Just as often, however, these loners get almost to the point of connection and then don't know how to take the final step, or are too shy, or run away when it looms. Jackson, a soldier returning home from the Second World War in Train - one of the strongest and longest pieces - jumps off his train several stops short of his destination, clearly avoiding something. The police? Creditors? He spends the next 17 years living as a brother-comrade-handyman with Belle Treece, a woman 16 years older than he, who is trying to manage what had been the family's summer house and is now a shack with a one-cow barn. Jackson would apparently have been fine keeping the situation that way forever, but when Belle has to go to the hospital in Toronto, the procedures and expectations press too tightly on him. How should he describe his relationship with Belle when he fills out the medical forms? "He was afraid that he would be required to kiss Belle good night."

Despite the sameness of setting and situation, the stories are not repetitive. Munro has an ability to plumb the populations of these towns over and over, always finding new tales, angles and personalities, the single moment of epiphany that changes a life and may produce an abrupt surprise ending. It might be as dramatic as the accident in Gravel and the near-catastrophe in To Reach Japan, or as soft as the title character's discovery in Corrie that "there's always one morning when you realise that the birds have all gone." Over the next half-dozen sentences, the author only partially spells out what Corrie has realised that morning. But as is usually the case with Munro, the understatement is sufficient.

Nor are all the pieces about sad, lonely denizens of southern Canada. In Sight of the Lake is a stunning depiction of a woman's mind in the early-to-middle stages of dementia.

The last four selections are, by Munro's own description, "not quite stories … autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact." They display another, more traditional side of Munro's writing, far more introspective and explanatory than the rest of the book, with a range of authorial voices - angry, nostalgic, matter-of-fact. Indeed, the little girl's hostile reactions to her mother in The Eye are almost chilling. In themselves these four pieces form a kaleidoscopic novella, each the tale of a slightly different, struggling farm family of two or three children where the eldest daughter - the Munro persona - doesn't get along with the mother.

If Munro shies from explanations in most of the stories, she similarly tends to switch point of view without announcing it, often within the same page or paragraph. In Train, she even shifts back and forth from Belle to Jackson to Belle's cow, Margaret Rose. (In case readers wonder just what a cow's point of view might be, here is Margaret Rose's reaction to the first sight of Jackson, climbing over a fence and waving: "That was too much for Margaret Rose, she had to put on a display. Jump one way, then the other. Toss of the wicked little horns. Nothing much, but Jerseys can always surprise you in an unpleasant way, with their speed and spirits of temper." Of course, by the end of that last sentence, we have effortlessly moved back to Belle's voice.)

In addition to painting powerful portraits of non-relationships, Munro can be spot on about the nuances of relationships that do exist. Gravel is especially good on sibling roles. "Nothing that the strangely powerful older child does seems out of the ordinary," the unnamed narrator says of her big sister, Caro. Later, when Caro asks the little sister what she wants to do after they've been sent outside to play, "This was a formality on her part."

But some of the author's greatest strengths - her understatement and her universe of Lonelyhearts - can sometimes be her undoing. Too often the narrative voices are similar and flat. The five-year-old sister in Gravel speaks just like the shy, harelipped, fiftyish bachelor in Pride.

Occasionally, Munro cheats by having characters conveniently "forget" key incidents.

In Haven, the narrator annoyingly spells out the possible motivations underlying the plot in a roundabout but still obvious way, by asking a series of questions that she never answers and positing a set of "maybes". When her Aunt Dawn, for the first time in her married life, defies her husband, Jasper, by inviting his long-estranged sister and her musical trio to their house for a dinner party with the neighbours, while Jasper is at the County Physicians Annual General Meeting and Dinner, the narrator muses, "Why did she take the risk? Why not entertain the neighbours by herself? Hard to say. Maybe she felt unable to carry a conversation by herself. Maybe she wanted to preen a little in front of those neighbours. Maybe - though I can hardly believe this - she wanted to make some slight gesture of friendship or acceptance towards the sister-in-law."

Maybe Munro should stick to the elliptical writing she does so well.

Gravel is probably the weakest in the collection, precisely because it is told from the vantage point of a five-year-old, who would normally fail to explain motivations anyway, because she simply wouldn't catch the cues.

Still, those are rare flaws. Over her 44-year career, Munro has carved out gems from the marginal towns and sad inhabitants of her literary kingdom, and Dear Life adds to that collection.

Fran Hawthorne is an award-winning US-based author and journalist.