This collection of nine stories is on the whole a lesson in eloquence, in carefully balanced story telling, and has striking moments, scattered like diamonds, of dazzling brilliance. Munro tells stories of ordinary lives, not those touched by extraordinary circumstances or catastrophic events, but lives simply being lived or tolerated, occasionally violated and celebrated. All of her protagonists are female, most come from small towns and provincial backgrounds, and all of them seem to be straining against the traditional female roles, the ideals of feminine mystique and coquetry that have been graciously and surreptitiously set before them. Munro’s voice is powerful and flush, even if her message is, at times, rather ambiguous. I prefer ambiguity in literature. Leaving the work up to interpretation and discussion increases its richness, and its potential to be ultimately satisfying to the reader.
Though upon reading the first two stories in this collection, the title tale and another called “Floating Bridge,” I was vaguely disappointed, stories like “Nettles” and “What is Remembered” completely won me over. Having read a few of the author’s short stories in The New Yorker, one in particular by the name of “Wenlock Edge” being among the best short stories I have ever read, I expected perhaps more diversity, less rigidity in the characters, and a wider scope of subtext that would go beyond unhappy marriages and repressed female sexuality, beyond turning away from one’s past.
Though thematically the stories are perhaps a bit too similar for my taste, there is no denying Munro’s vivid descriptions and richly textured language. She sets her reader up time and again; whether we expect a forbidden coupling in a rainstorm, or a suicide by hanging, we are never delivered quite what we thought we ordered. We are able to identify with the deeply intimate revelations of each of her characters. We feel ashamed with Lorna (“Post and Beam”) rather than on her behalf, and we wallow with the nameless little-girl-turned-mother (“Nettles”) in her self-pitying and often desperate malaise. There are moments when the thought or action of a character turns us against her due not to a strong moral objection, but because we ourselves have had that very thought, committed ourselves that same action, and these are things we do not wish to admit, even in the privacy of our minds.
This is the genius of Alice Munro. She taps into the hidden nuances of human nature; the beliefs and trials and tests that hinder us in our lives, and teach us to be stronger and wiser, if not better people. Munro’s stories are kaleidoscopes, telescopes, microscopes and x-ray glasses fitted to observe us at our most vulnerable and blemished moments, allowing us, in turn to see ourselves and each other in the most clear and colorful way, and from the most flawed angle. Having done that, we are left knowing perhaps a bit more of our true selves, and feeling freed.