YOU would be hard pressed to find a book that looks less like it would fit in the recently banned “chick lit” section at WH Smiths, yet within Alice Munro’s latest collection’s austere grey covers are intimate, perfectly formed portraits of the lives of girls and women, and those of their sons, daughters, husbands, fathers and lovers that any reader of something more pink and shiny could wish for.
The difference is that Munro, the doyen of the short story format, eschews conventions of romantic fiction for deftly wrought narrations of the complexities of every day life.
Munro, with her drum-tight vignettes may be a writers’ writer, but each of the 15 stories curated from published books of the last ten years are joys to read. The characters live suburban lives touched some way by the stuff of everyday drama – corrosive secrets, sudden abandonments, deceptions and decisions made on a whim that change the course of events irrevocably. In one a dying woman tells her lonely nurse, who seems ready to step into the life the woman must leave, her husband’s dark secret – or just is it just shrewish desire to ruin the potential happiness she never had? In another story, a serial philanderer – and one of the few male protagonists inside this book – must witness his wife who has dementia forget who he is and find new love in her care home.
Munro exploits to the full the third person omniscient point of view, which allows the reader into the thoughts of the stories’ protagonists. There is the plain but sensible Joanna who realises the smart suit she had spotted as her wedding outfit is all wrong.
“It was all right. The fit was all right – the skirt shorter than what she was used to, but then what she was used to was not the style. There was no problem with the suit. The problem was with what stuck out of it. Her neck and her face and her hair and her big hands and thick legs.” Small reflections such as these fit into the wider push and pull of the intrigue, as poor Joanna is actually the subject of a cruel girls’ prank and is being duped by her employers’ daughter into thinking she has a fiancé.
But Munro just as easily slips into the first person with the same full palette of shade and ambiguity, where the narrator is not always honourable and her object is not always as easily dismissed.
In “Family Furnishings”, the narrator, an aspiring writer, paints an ambivalent picture of an aunt who laughs too loudly, smokes too much and whose childhood catastrophe becomes the subject of one of the writers’ stories which drives a wedge between family members.
But there are no soap opera showdowns as Munro’s most gripping episodes are mostly told in the oblique, reflecting the way most human interactions are carried out. Instead the blow is struck in whisps of dialogue and a change in tone at a funeral:
Also, that the feeling of apology or friendliness, the harmlessness that I had felt in this woman a little while before was not there now.
“That’s right,” the woman said. “People change things around. You want to know what Alfrida said about you?”
Now I knew it was coming.
“She said you were smart, but you weren’t ever quite as smart as you thought you were.”
What Munro lovers love is how her short stories, or even a series of them linking different episodes of the same character, can contain in its brief pages the arc of a life not unlike a saga, where every sharp detail feels like it could have happened to your close relative. Or to you.
• New Selected Stories, by Alice Munro. Chatto & Windus, 434pp, £18.99