A book of ten short stories, so finely written, providing a telling insight into human nature, or describing a scene, just so, in a few words, like prose poetry. The stories vary incredibly across time, theme and characters, the only constant being that they are all told from the point of view of a woman and tend to deal with issues of love, I don't think they could have been written by a man. The thrust of the story is often oblique, and sometimes opaque, I always felt the author was a couple of steps ahead of me, which left each story in my mind while I tried to absorb it. Read just one story a day, and be prepared to want to read it again.
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How does she do it? I think of fine American writers of the South, like Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, and she is their equal in terms of their insights into the human condition. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Penguin Modern Classics) brilliantly depicts the quiet sorrows and loneliness of several individuals' lives. Munro is brilliant in this regard also, but what truly sets her apart is the sheer range of her characters, the constant originality of her material, and how she is able to distill the intensity of a novel, such as McCullers' classic, into a mere 25 page short story.
"Friend of My Youth" was first published in 1990, still in the first half of her oeuvre. It is composed of 10 short stories, each roughly 25-pages. The titles are often taken from a key phrase or expression that one of the characters within it uses. And that phrase always seems to be a celebration of Munro's keen ear for dialogue, and how those few words, or just one in the cases of "Differently" and "Wigtime" illuminate a character or an entire incident. Another key, and most enjoyable aspect of her stories is that they can range over several decades: the reader is treated to how a character was as a child, and then how some of those traits reveal themselves in adulthood. Generational interactions are also frequent.
As a sampling of Munro's incredible range, consider the following four stories:
"Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass" concerns Hazel, who is now the widow of a former World War II bomber pilot, going to Scotland to look up his cousin, whom he stayed with, on leaves, during the war. Among other incidents, she immediately runs into one of his girlfriends from the war, but she refuses to acknowledge any relationship because she has reconstructed an entirely new life whereby she is 10 years younger than she actually is, and therefore it was impossible for her to date him during the war. And we learn what "making a woman happy" is a euphemism for.
"Meneseteung" concerns courtship rituals from the 1850's in Western Ontario, as a small town developed. Will the protagonist, Almeda Roth, a poetess, escape "spinsterhood," by winning the heart" of Jarvis Poulter, a salt mine proprietor. And does she really want to? Concerning Poulter, Munro writes: "A man may keep his house decent, but he will never - If he is a proper man - do much to decorate it. Marriage forces him to live with more ornament as well as sentiment, and it protects him, also, from the extremities of his own nature- from a frigid parsimony or a luxuriant sloth, from squalor, and from excessive sleeping or reading, drinking, smoking, or freethinking."
"Pictures of the Ice" concerns a retiring preacher, recently widowed, who is going off to Hawaii to marry a woman he met at a church conference. It also concerns Karin and Brent, and their hard life, which was resolved when the preacher introduced them to religion. But then Brent, like many a recent convert, becomes more religious than the preacher, and essentially forces him out of the church. But then again, maybe things are not as they seem, on first take, as is so often the case.
"Five Points," ah, another complex tale, centering around an illicit love affair between a married woman, Brenda, whose husband was injured in the salt mine, and a man only a few years younger, but in fact, a whole "generation" younger; the difference between the stay-at-home and get married, late 50's, and the drugs and rock and roll of the early `60's. Always Munro has that knack for the key detail: Brenda wears her high heels for that few moments of a walk between their cars, at their rendezvous point, deep in the woods.
Each story is finely crafted and polished. Munro makes every word count. She has seen so much deeper than most into the pathos that is the daily lives of those around us, if not our own. Unquestionably, another 6-stars.
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