By Alice Munro
Knopf, 335 pp., $25
What is it that makes the short stories of Alice Munro matter? The human quotient, mostly. The wealth of telling detail, secondly. Her clear-cut, no-nonsense language, for a third. Which means her stories don't go in for the implausible, the impossible, and the unrecognizable. This doesn't, however, prevent them from focusing on the earth-shattering, quietly.
"Runaway" is a good place to start, because it's the first story and the title story in Munro's latest collection. Carla is an impressionable city girl who ran off with and married Clark, a roustabout-turned-horse-farmer. Together they operate a stable in the Canadian countryside, and times are bad. Rains have kept away the school groups that come for riding lessons, and Flora -- the snow-white goat Clark discovered and Carla adopted as a pet -- is missing. Enter Mrs. Jamieson, a meddling, intellectually superior neighbor and the recent widow of an award-winning poet who taught at the nearby college. There's more to that poet, more to Clark's temper, more to the marriage of Carla and Clark, and more to Carla's eagerness to escape the confines of that marriage than any surface knowledge would have it. Mrs. Jamieson ignorantly urges an escape plan, Carla acts on it, but Carla returns. So does Flora. To what? Two killings: one physical, the other psychological, and who's to say which is the more horrific? Alice Munro.
Juliet is the focus of the following three stories, another young woman gamely starting out, this time backed by academic success but as unprepared for adult life as Carla. We follow Juliet from teaching in an all-girls' school in Vancouver, across Canada and back by train (one trip the scene of a brutal suicide) on visits to her estranged parents, and then on to a small town in British Columbia to set up (unmarried) life with an unfaithful fisherman. Then we fast-forward to her grown daughter Penelope's escape to parts unknown and arrive at Juliet, advanced in age, in Vancouver only partially in wait for word from her daughter. Who does this Juliet end up becoming? A woman hoping "as people who know better hope for undeserved blessings, spontaneous remissions, things of that sort" -- a Juliet foreshadowed for us decades earlier and here at last graduated into full self-knowledge.
In the remaining stories, Grace, the young waitress in "Passion," is set to wed one man but over the course of one afternoon and evening ends up, eyes opened, with his alcoholic half-brother. Lauren, the 10-year-old in "Trespasses," is happy to befriend an older woman, Eileen, until Lauren, eyes opened, learns of the fault lines in her parents' troubled marriage and Eileen's role in creating them. Robin in "Tricks" doesn't so much have her eyes opened as her world permanently overturned by the surprise appearance, late in life, of a twin brother -- a brother to the man who'd chanced on making a romantic opening in Robin's paralyzing provincial life.
Nancy is the focus of Runaway's most ambitious story, "Powers," a tale that starts in diary form in the late 1920s, and before it's over, we pass through the lifetime of one woman faced with what she can and cannot predict about her own marriage and the life and death of her high school friend Tessa, blessed or cursed with the powers of divination.
And on the subject of the future: "The strange and terrible thing coming clear to her about that world of the future was that she would not exist there," Carla, in the midst of escape, thinks to herself in "Runaway." "She would only walk around, and open her mouth and speak, and do this and do that. She would not really be there. And what was strange about it was that she was doing all this, she was riding on this bus in the hope of recovering herself. As Mrs. Jamieson might say -- and as she herself might with satisfaction have said -- taking charge of her own life. With nobody glowering over her, nobody's mood infecting her with misery."
How wrong Carla is about the empty wisdom of Mrs. Jamieson. But how right of Alice Munro to expose the inner workings of a soul adrift. These superlative stories are full of such sudden insights. •