I don’t know exactly what I expected from my first experience reading Alice Munro’s short stories. I knew that she’s considered a master of the form, winning the Nobel prize in 2013. But for some reason, I’d slotted her stories into the quiet domestic drama category, thinking that they would be nice stories of people struggling with ordinary life. I don’t know whether that mental categorization has to do with the way her books are marketed or the non-specificity of the writing I’ve seen about her books or my own inattentiveness. Because her stories aren’t particularly nice at all. They’re quiet, yes, but only because the drama primarily resides in the characters’ minds, bursting forth only when they cannot cope and choose to take decisive action, to leave, to confess, to seduce, to kill, to love.
The stories are intimate, focusing on family and neighborhood drama (I had that part right). A woman writes letters to her lover while visiting her doctor father. A child is born to a war widow. A girl visits her mother for the summer. A grandmother takes her grandchildren for a drive. But each of these seemingly ordinary incidents that have a significance that reverberates throughout the characters’ lives. The narrators, whether first-person or third-person, are watching from a vantage point that allows them to see those reverberations, to recognize these moments’ significance. The narrator in “The Children Stay,” for example, notes how the story’s protagonist will cope with the consequences of her choice, once she begins to realize what it means for herself and her children:
This is acute pain. It will become chronic. Chronic means that it will be permanent but perhaps not constant. It may also mean that you won’t die of it. You won’t get free of it, but you won’t die of it. You won’t feel it every minute, but you won’t spend many days without it. And you’ll learn some tricks to banish it, trying not to end up destroying what you incurred this pain to get.
(I particularly like this quote because it seems to be a pretty good description of all kinds of chronic pain, physical and mental.)
The juxtaposition of the ordinary and the highly fraught in these stories opens our eyes to the ways there’s more going on under the surface that we might suspect in any life. We don’t know what’s going on in the mind and heart of the woman watching her two children playing on the beach. We might think we know, but people are good at hiding. You might assume that a young girl in a hospital bed longs for her mother’s touch, but she may be glorying in her own separateness, as Karin in “Rich as Stink” does when her mother, Rosemary, complains that she couldn’t touch her daughter:
Karin says yes. She understood. What she doesn’t bother to say is that back then she thought Rosemary’s sorrow was absurd. It was as if she was complaining about not being able to reach across a continent. For that was what Karen felt she had become—something immense and shimmering and sufficient, ridged up in pain in some places and flattened out, otherwise, into long dull distances. Away off at the edge of this was Rosemary, and Karin could reduce her, any time she liked, into a configuration of noisy black dots. And she herself—Karin—could be stretched out like this and at the same time shrunk into the middle of her territory, as tidy as a bead or a ladybug.
In these stories, Munro often plays with timelines and plot development. Characters are looking back at past events, sometimes withholding key pieces of information that affect how readers interpret those events. In the title story, for example, we get what seem like two separate stories: one of a group of boys finding a dead body, another of a young woman nursing a woman through her last days. Both stories take place in the same Canada town, and the women in the second strand know the dead man from the first strand, but we don’t know how tightly these strands are linked until the story’s final pages. The revelations are often dark, but sometimes they just cast what we thought we knew in a different light. In the collection’s final story, the tragedy I expected proved to be a different, less distressing tragedy that became nearly as distressing as the one I expected as I thought about it.
That’s the interesting thing about these eight stories, the way they turn over and over, going against our expectations and forcing us to rethink what we see, just as life does.