TOP 500 REVIEWERon 13 December 2013
Alice Munro, whose short stories remind me of the work of the "groundbreaking" Katherine Mansfield, seems to break every "rule" of creative writing courses. On a rough estimate frequently up to around 13,000 words in length, stories digress and ramble from a central theme that has to be deduced, although it may remain unclear until the end. Plot is unimportant, although certain "key" events emerge in what sometimes proves to be a carefully planned order.
Tension may arise over shocking events - like a person drowning - with anticipation fed by the knowledge that the crisis may come in the middle of the tale, then may be allowed drift away to a bland, even incomplete-seeming ending, or the drama may itself be defused abruptly, or ebb away. Munro's attention flits between people's insights, often derived from the minor events of life, a strong sense of place, or scraps of conversation which have an authentic ring, as if based on comments overheard (say, young children talking) but embellished to fit the situation.
Munro explores the thoughts and relationships of ordinary people carrying out their daily tasks in smalltown Canada against the backdrop of lakes, forests, changing weather and shape-changing winter snow. She draws heavily on her own situation: father a farmer, mother a perhaps stern teacher, who fell ill when Monro was still young, possibly creating the dilemma of whether the latter should sacrifice herself to stay at home as a carer, like many of the women in her tales, or strike out to claim her freedom as Munro did. She writes of early marriages, motherhood, divorce and second partners, all part of her own life. The question of losing one's memory with age clearly interests her, together with the way we sometimes distort the truth, almost deliberately twisting memories to how we would have them be, or accepting the convenient assumptions of others and making them the truth.
I agree with the view that her stories, though clearly too short to be novellas, are packed with as much content in terms of events, relationships and insights as many novels. I was also relieved to read that Joyce Carol Oates's review did not baulk at finding some stories wanting. It is true that what seem like important aspects, like the course of a developing relationship, are glossed over, leaving the reader feeling unengaged with "central" characters. Also, some stories seem overcomplicated, appearing to cover too much as what seems to be the central theme emerges.
For me, the most successful stories are `The progress of love' about a woman's relationship with her mother whose life she has clearly made huge efforts not to imitate, `Fits' which explores people's prurient reaction to violent death and almost angry disappointment with a witness who declines to feed their ghoulish curiosity, and `White dump' about the collapse of a marriage in which a mother-in-law may have played an unwitting part, and its lifelong effects on the daughter of the union.
Readers will draw different meanings from each story, and vary in those they prefer, or believe they understand. This anthology will repay rereading in the future, when one's perceptions may have changed.