Quiet explosions

Dear Life, by Alice Munro, Chatto & Windus, RRP£18.99/Knopf, RRP$26.95, 336 pages

Alice Munro is one of our greatest living writers, and this new collection of stories – most previously published in The New Yorker, Granta and Harper’s Magazine – is essential reading for anyone who cares about literature, storytelling and language, or who savours the deep enjoyment of a writer at the height of her powers.

The question of what makes her so good is hard to answer. Many great short story writers are flashy in style, because they can be. It’s possible to sustain thought experiments and unusual writing over that distance in a way that would become grating in a novel. Munro’s writing is the opposite of this. She doesn’t surprise us with a showy plot, or a curious page layout or an unusual choice of voice or register. She writes quiet, lyrical sentences – to appreciate how well she does this, try reading a story out loud and notice how you don’t stumble, so perfect is the rhythm – which builds slowly, almost imperceptibly, to an explosive moment. Explosive – but more likely internal than external.

It is her particular skill to make heart-racing tension out of the smallest incident. “Corrie”, for example, has a set-up straight out of a noir movie. Married man Howard and eponymous heiress Corrie carry on a long affair. They are blackmailed by Lillian, Corrie’s ex-maid, who threatens to tell Howard’s wife. The characters are all subtly drawn – the reasons for the affair, and blackmail, are complex and tangible.

Munro’s genius is evident here in a paragraph that changes the entire meaning of the story. When I read it, I gasped. It is plotting of the highest order; a series of events, each simply told, revealed at the end to have been a compact and gnomic narrative. The pleasure of feeling the story rewrite itself in one’s mind on the turn of that revelation is hard-won; Munro makes it look easy, but it’s the hardest thing in the world to create a story which can change, just so, with one tug.

She is psychologically acute, intensely so, and for that reason able to leave events unresolved. In “Amundsen”, a young woman is romanced at great speed by a surgeon, and equally abruptly dumped; it’s for readers to piece together the clues about his personality and hers to understand what happened. Or to accept that no full understanding of our own actions – let alone other people’s – is ever really possible.

The ways in which we can remain strangers even to ourselves is a recurring theme. “Gravel” has not left me since I read it. A man – or could it be a woman? The gender is ambiguous – recalls a childhood incident that ended in tragedy at a water-filled gravel pit. He tries to explain to himself why, at the crucial moment, instead of going for help, his child self “sat down. Just as if there had been a porch or a bench ... I sat down and waited for the next thing to happen.” He sees a counsellor, who attempts to force a narrative of adult sense on the events. His girlfriend suggests a different interpretation. He seeks out one of the original players in the drama, who has yet another thought about what really happened.

Munro returns to this theme in the autobiographical story “Night”, when she seeks to understand the compulsive thoughts she had as a child after a long illness. The point is that there can be no single explanation – that perhaps for each of us the moment of bursting from childhood to adulthood is some shocking realisation that we’ve done something that we ourselves cannot comprehend.

The collection ends with four linked memoir-like stories. As Munro says, they are “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life.” Enticing via understatement again.

She is clear-eyed about childhood – and has a memory for details that resound with truth. This moment, for example, when her brother is born: “Up until the time of the first baby I had not been aware of ever feeling different from the way my mother said I felt.” This must be true for each of us, that moment when we went from biddable babies to foot-stamping toddlers, determined on our own identities; but Munro’s clarity of memory and expression is astonishing.

She’s incisive, too, on the position of women, which has changed so radically over Munro’s 81 years. What it means to be a woman – what expectations and obligations are placed on women – is a superstructure of the whole book, and especially of those last four essay-stories, together titled “Finale”. In “Amundsen” the woman who dates the surgeon says: “My stock had risen. Now, whatever else I was, I at least might turn out to be a woman with a man.” In “Haven”, she reflects on what women meant when they said of others: “her life revolves around that man”. And in “Finale” she tells of her mother suddenly leaving a party when she realised one of the other women there was a prostitute.

These stories remind us of the world Munro was born into. They recreate the straitjacket a woman might find herself in, and how easy it was for ambitions to be subsumed by her husband’s life, or for her to be destroyed by social disapproval. And they remind us, therefore, how lucky we are to have Munro herself and her subtle, intelligent and true work.

Naomi Alderman is the author of ‘The Liars’ Gospel’ (Viking)

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