Review: Runaway by Alice Munro

I’ve only recently started reading short stories regularly and I figured it was time to read some Alice Munro, who I’ve often seen talked about as the modern master of the form. I can see why, and I also realised while reading this that I haven’t read many Canadian stories. This collection is full of exquisite images of the landscape, from the lakes of Ontario, to the dark conifer forests, to the lush islands of the Pacific Northwest.

Runaway is a collection of eight short stories, although at around 40 pages each they are longer than short stories often are. In the first and titular story Carla, a young woman running a horse touring business with her husband, seeks the counsel of her older neighbour Mrs Jamieson. In Passion we meet Grace, an older woman returning to the scene of the summer she met the Travers family. In Trespasses, 10-year-old Lauren worries about secrets her extremely liberal parents might be keeping from her. Tricks sees Robin, 26, escaping her domineering sister to see Shakespeare plays. And the last story, Powers, follows the life of Nancy and her friendships with the mysterious Tessa, and her husband’s cousin Ollie.

Most powerful are three stories – Chance, Soon and Silence (every title in this collection suggests a hawk-like focus) – which tell the story of Juliet’s life, a young woman who sets out on a train from her rural upbringing in Ontario for adventure in British Columbia. She finds it, but must deal with what she has left behind. What impressed me most about these stories is that they are truly discrete, each a self-contained whole. When they add up to a larger story, the story of a woman’s life, it is not greater than the sum of its parts. It as if all our lives are not one long narrative, but a series of short stories.

In each of these stories characters make seemingly insignificant decisions that have vast moral consequences. A moment of cruelty in Chance will haunt Juliet throughout her life, but perhaps not in the ways she expects. The lie that Carla tells her husband quickly leaps out of her control. The introduction that Nancy makes has horrifying consequences.

While these stories are incredibly satisfying and entertaining, the more I think about them the more unnerving they become, in their suggestion that unless we are very careful with what we do and say, we risk destroying other people’s lives. But these are not parables, they do not warn or judge. Instead they have the cool detachment of observation, a chilly curiosity about the devastation that people can wreak.

While each story creates something wholly unique, similarities emerge. Most take place in the late-20th century, with their roots in the ’50s and ’60s. Most revolve around middle-class (or occasionally less well off) women who don’t fit the mould – they are too well-educated, raised too liberally, too curious – to accept that married life is all they are good for. Many have complicated relationships with daughters and mothers. Many of them indeed choose to runaway. There is a pervasive sense of the occult.

The stories take their time to reveal their meanings, but on finishing each one I was surprised to find that Munro had often set up the central quandary in the very first paragraph. How did she do that? Often a story will begin with a little set up, and then zoom forward or back, sometimes decades, to dissect a decisive moment in a character’s life. Likewise at the conclusion a story will skip forward to see an action’s consequences. The effect is disconcerting, and again, I wondered how Munro gets away with it.

The same thing happens with the writing. It is not exactly invisible – there are phrases to chew, twisty dialogue, puzzles to mull over – but it never sits in front of what it is describing. I should not be surprised by this given the praise Munro has received but her control and ability to conjure entire lives within a few dozen pages really does start to feel like magic.

Gay rating: 1/5 for one possibly queer character.

Runaway is published by Random House.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s