Illuminating lives in flight

Michael Frank is a contributing writer to Book Review.

By now it has been long established that Alice Munro is one of those writers who, in taking to a form, makes it her own. There is no confusing a Munro story for anyone else’s. “Lives of Girls and Women,” the title of her second book, conveys her central abiding concern: women and girls, mothers and daughters, the former often ailing or troubled, in any event offering complicated and constricting love, the latter struggling to be unencumbered, to venture out of the provinces into cities, careers, passions, attachments of their own, and the illusion of fuller, freer, better lives. Yet consciousness is, as with so many (all?) story writers, Munro’s deeper subject: consciousness of the almost inadvertent patterning of life, the play of memory, the limitations of understanding, the searing touch of time.

Structurally, a Munro story often begins with a thumbnail scene that makes sense only farther on, when the narrative circles back, as though to pick up -- and memorably illuminate -- this choice shed crumb. Munro jumbles time and occasionally tense with expertise; she is unafraid of length; she sometimes embraces symbols that in a lesser writer’s work would be hackneyed or arch; she makes deft use of nature and landscape to set a story’s mood or suggest a character’s frame of mind; she always stretches for the fresh turn of phrase, the unexpected piece of dialogue, an image or a comparison that distills a person (or a moment) just so. Now and then a whiff of coldness settles over the proceedings, a rigorous, almost clinical detachment, not only in the characters’ behavior (especially in the way daughters regard their parents and relations) but in the narrator’s assessment of it. There is not a speck of sentimentality in Munro’s fictional world, ever.

It is not often easy to pinpoint when, exactly, a writer’s work begins to change, but it has become increasingly clear, from about the time of “Open Secrets” (1994) through to “Runaway,” her latest collection, that Munro’s stories have been undergoing a shift. As Munro has aged, so have many of her characters, and as a result they, like the narrator, tend to take a longer view of life: “[W]hat she wants to do if she can get the time to do it,” Munro says of Nancy in “Powers,” the concluding story in “Runaway,” “is not so much to live in the past as to open it up and get one good look at it.” Munro seems less and less interested in leading the reader forward by predictable routes. Predicaments, dilemmas, puzzles, situations are left ragged in the fiction, as they often are in reality. Yet at the same time there is more patterning and a more powerful resonance among interludes that might at first seem arbitrarily juxtaposed. There is a kind of myth-like quality too, as though she has handed her characters over to Fate and stood back a bit to see how they will react.


Throughout these newer stories there is a gravity as well, and in the best of them a quality of suspense that is sometimes so acute as to cause you to read rapidly and anxiously forward to find out what happens next. This suspense is not lodged so much in plot as in the characters’ behavior, their (or our) discovery of their interiority and their gradual unfurling awareness of their destinies.

It doesn’t seem an accident that Juliet, the central figure in three linked stories near the beginning of “Runaway,” is a student of Greek, both the language and the literature. In the aptly named “Chance” (all the stories in this collection have a single-word title), a fateful encounter with a man on a train alters her life. We see just how greatly in “Soon,” when as a new mother she returns home to visit her provincial parents.

“Silence,” the third installment in this triptych, is by far the most unsettling. In a turn typical of these stories, Munro has leapt forward to give us Juliet older. Her daughter Penelope is grown and flown -- first, it seems, to a religious or cult-like commune and then, it emerges, into apparent ether. The story chronicles Juliet’s life as it achingly plays out against the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance. The past is raked over for potential clues: Was it the lack of spirituality with which Penelope was raised? The father’s brutal drowning, a story kept back from Penelope at the moment it happened? Juliet’s own grief-struck nervous collapse afterward? “I let her see too much misery. My stupid misery,” Juliet tells a friend in one moment; in another she says, “She’s a conundrum, that’s all. I need to face that.”

Finally, when a version of Penelope’s fate reaches Juliet, she imagines saying to a different friend, “[W]e always have the idea that there is this reason or that reason and we keep trying to find out reasons. And I could tell you plenty about what I’ve done wrong. But I think the reason may be something not so easily dug out. Something like purity in her nature.” The story more or less stops here, at a recognition, if not quite an acceptance, of the unknowable.

There are a number of runaways in “Runaway.” There is Carla in the title story, who fails to run away from an unhappy marriage, and there is her cherished goat Flora. Juliet is herself a runaway from her background; Penelope is another, and can be seen as a haunting (if more extreme) legacy of Juliet’s own flight from home. In “Passion,” Grace runs away first from her limiting home life, then (almost unconsciously) from the prospect of a passionless marriage, when she allows herself to be seduced by her fiance’s alcoholic brother. In the layered “Powers,” Ollie seems to run away from his clairvoyant wife, Tessa, because “living with a unique person can be a strain, in fact perhaps more of a strain than a normal man can stand.” (Tessa is one of a number of mentally off characters in this collection, an interest in extreme states of mind being another hallmark of Munro’s recent work.) And in “Tricks,” another story with a strong hand of Fate in it, Robin runs away from her needy unbalanced sister, albeit only once a year and ostensibly to treat herself to an afternoon of Shakespeare.

The Greeks, Shakespeare, Dante, mythology: In this collection Munro regularly glances toward, or slyly refers to or culls from, these literary precedents. Toward the end of “Tricks,” Robin realizes that “Shakespeare should have prepared her” for the turn of fate that cost her her chance at love. Juliet finds a “natural continuing fascination” with Heliodorus’ “Aethiopica,” the story of the queen of Ethiopia who, afraid of being accused of adultery, gives her (white) daughter away to mystic philosophers, yet never ceases to long for her. What is noteworthy is not simply that Munro opens her stories to these allusions, or constructs them around what might be seen as a certain shared steely concern with destiny, but that they remain grounded in the authentic, the textured, the everyday. The masterful interplay between forces large and small, the seen and the intuited, the mysterious and the knowable make Munro’s stories expand in the mind pretty much infinitely.


Toward the end of “Silence,” Munro describes Juliet in her old age as living “amongst books, reading through most of her waking hours and being compelled to deepen, to alter, whatever premise she had started with.” It is hard to imagine a more apt crystallization of the experience of reading this beautiful new work. As with so many of Munro’s stories, you read to have your premises altered and deepened. Could anything be better? *