Five of the best Alice Munro short stories

It is almost impossible to recommend a handful of Munro short stories. Over a writing career that spanned decades and led to many accolades, including the Nobel prize for literature, she produced countless stories, often set in southern Ontario, where she grew up and to where she returned in later life. Few writers captured the lives of “ordinary” people with as much grace and empathy – not to mention technical genius – as Munro. Her stories are anything but ordinary.

Margaret Atwood cried when she first read this story, because “it was so well done”. “Spinster” Miss Marsalles, piano teacher to generations of children in the genteel southern Ontario town of Rosedale, is giving one of her annual piano-recital parties, a source of dread and scorn for the young mothers who feel obliged to attend. The story is narrated by the teenage daughter of one of the mothers, both past students of Miss Marsalles. The teacher and her elder sister (who has had a stroke – “She’s not herself though, poor thing”) no longer live in the smart family house, but have moved to a bungalow in the wrong part of town: “This aspect of Miss Marsalles’ life had passed into that region of painful subjects which it is crude and unmannerly to discuss.”

The Marsalles sisters, with their “kindly and grotesque faces” and insistence on throwing parties despite their reduced circumstances, have committed the female sins of being unmarried, elderly and poor. “It must finally have come to seem like a piece of luck to them to be so ugly, a protection against life to be so marked in so many ways.” Such is Munro’s attention to detail – the flies buzzing around sandwiches put out too early, the dress that “smells of the cleaners”, the presents tied with silver ribbon, “not real ribbon, the kind that splits and threads” – that the reader squirms as uncomfortably as the mothers on that “hot gritty” afternoon. When a group of children with Down’s syndrome arrive to give recitals, none of the nice ladies of Rosedale know where to look – literally. “For it is a matter of politeness, surely not to look closely at such children, and yet where else can you look during a piano performance, but at the performer?”

In barely 10 pages (Munro’s early work was much shorter), Dance of the Happy Shades is a masterclass in authorial irony. The women’s well-mannered facades sliding like their makeup in the heat to reveal their snobbery and unkindness. A celebration of innocence and unexpected joy – but without a single note of sentimentality – it might make you cry too, and not just because it is so good, which it is, but because it is so sad and strange.

This was the second Munro story to be published in the New Yorker in 1977, after Royal Beatings a few months earlier. Both are part of a series of stories following the character of Rose, over more than 40 years, and returning always to Hanratty, Munro’s fictional small town in southern Ontario. Rose’s life follows a very similar path to that of the author – from bookish girl growing up on the wrong side of town to scholarship, unwise first marriage, early motherhood, divorce, creative success and a measure of fame, and a return to the small town from which she longed to flee. It is an arc Munro revisited many times over the years. Here, in the fifth “Rose and Flo story”, our heroine has made first escape to University of Western Ontario in London (just like the author). As is the way of things for girls like Rose, she is only trading one trap for another: agreeing to marry privileged but priggish Patrick, who worshipped her and “because it did not seem likely such an offer would come her way again”.

The Forks of the Credit provincial park in Ontario. Photograph: Tomislav Stefanac/Alamy

Shame, self-delusion, ambition and regret, our inability to know our own minds – all the Munrovian raw materials are here. “It was a miracle; it was a mistake. It was what she had dreamed of; it was not what she wanted.” The inevitability of their doomed romance is clear from their first visits to their family homes: the plastic table cloth and tube of fluorescent light in the kitchen back at Hanratty; a lime-green plastic napkin holder in the shape of a swan, in contrast to Patrick’s parents’ mansion on Vancouver Island, where “size was noticeable everywhere and particularly thickness. Thickness of towels and rugs and handles of knives and forks, and silences. There was a terrible amount of luxury and unease.” Poor Rose.

Ten years of disastrous marriage ensue – she hits her head against the bedpost, he hits her; she smashes a gravy boat through the dining-room window (it was the decade of smashing gravy boats). “They could not separate until enough damage had been done, until nearly mortal damage had been done to keep them apart.” And, Munro continues in the next sentence, “until Rose could get a job and make her own money, so perhaps there was a very ordinary reason after all.” Munro was always alert to the economics of romance.

A chance encounter in airport late at night many years later results in a childish, ugly gesture, “a timed explosion of disgust and loathing”, which haunts the reader as it does Rose. How could anybody hate her that much, the middle-aged (now moderately famous TV presenter) Rose wonders. “Oh Patrick could, Patrick could.”

One Saturday morning in 1951, three boys find a man (Mr D M Willens, the town’s optometrist) dead in his car submerged in the Peregrine River. Instead of going to the police station, as they know they should, they go home for lunch, passing by the dead man’s house, where they meet his unknowing wife (widow) in her garden, who gives them armfuls of forsythia to give to their mothers, much to their embarrassment. We follow each of the boys back to their respective homes – each knowably described, with all their various messiness and dark corners. Later that evening, one of the boys finally tells his mother, who calls the police. This is not the end of the story, or even, really, the start.

Suddenly we are in the sick room of a young mother dying of liver failure, being cared for by Enid, a local home nurse and “saint” – the good woman of the title. What we assume is going to be a coming-of-age story or portrait of small-town morality turns into a ghost story, a revenge tale, a murder mystery and ultimately a love story – all in just under 80 pages.

“Did you tell?” “Did you?” the boys nervously ask each other at the beginning, and the question becomes a refrain throughout this story of secrets and lies. For a long time it seems unlikely that the two narratives can possibly have any relation to each other, apart from geography. But then, like a pair of acrobats on a trapeze, they come together in a feat of storytelling at which the reader can barely look and cannot look away for fear at how it might end.

Munro flirts with but never succumbs to melodrama. Not a detail, and there are so many details, is wasted: Mr Willens was not an optometrist for nothing – Munro makes us see what is going on beneath the surface. This story gives the lie to the idea that her stories are merely elegant slices of sadness and domestic ennui. Here she was at the height of her powers. What, the story asks, does it really mean to be good?

Set partly in Victoria (where Munro lived during her first marriage) and Vancouver Island, The Children Stay is a classic Munro story of female escape. Pauline, a mother of two small daughters, is a typical Munro desperate housewife, born too early for the sexual revolution, with a yearning to be “someone detached and solitary who lived in the glare of an important dream”. Pauline is not an actor. She is not even an amateur actor. But she has landed the lead role in an amateur production of Eurydice. Naturally, she is having an affair with the director.

Cowichan Lake on Vancouver Island. Photograph: Kevin Oke/Alamy

On a family holiday, thoughts of her secret life come to her “like a radiant explosion” when she is wringing out diapers or playing Monopoly with her benignly awful in-laws. Then one day she leaves, checking into a seedy hotel with only the clothes she is wearing. “So her life was falling forwards; she was becoming one of those people who ran away. A woman who shockingly and incomprehensibly gave everything up. For love, observers would say wryly. Meaning for sex. None of this would happen if it wasn’t for sex.” As Atwood has said, few writers have explored the risky business of irresistible desire “more thoroughly, and more ruthlessly” than Munro, in whose hands “a rumpled bed says more than any graphic in-out, in-out depiction of genitalia ever could”.

None of the characters are particularly likable and all are faintly ridiculous. Both men are childish: her husband Brian, with his compulsion to turn everything into a joke and puppyish attachment to his parents; her lover, Jeffrey, “monsieur le director” as Brian calls him, with his artistic pretensions and tantrums. Then, of course, there are the real children.

“The children stay,” Brian – otherwise insultingly reasonable about the whole thing – insists. “Say to yourself, you lose them anyway. They grow up,” Pauline bargains with herself. The terrible absence of Pauline’s decision stays with the reader, like the weight of the baby on her hip, and the toddler’s sandy footprints on the floor of the supermarket by the beach where Pauline takes the call from Jeffrey.

Then, in one of Munro’s whiplash paragraph turns, the children have grown up. They don’t hate her and they don’t forgive her either. Jeffrey was just someone she lived with for a while. But the children stayed.

Grant and Fiona have been happily married for years (Grant’s many affairs aside – it was the 70s). Now they are both in their 70s and Fiona has dementia, so Grant takes her to stay in a residential home: “It’ll sort of be like a hotel,” Fiona remarks cheerfully while they are preparing to leave. When Grant returns after the settling-in month, he finds his wife has rekindled a youthful romance with another patient.

But again this is not the story, or not the whole story. In order to maintain his wife’s happiness in her new “home”, Grant contemplates a liaison with his rival’s wife, tight-lipped, tough-talking Marian. “It would be like biting into a litchi nut,” he reflects of a date with Marian. “The flesh with its oddly artificial allure, its chemical taste and perfume, shallow over the extensive seed, the stone.” It is the unlikeliness of this image, popping up in the unexotic context of Marian’s home – all shiny kitchen appliances and plastic carpet runners – that makes it so arresting. The litchi tells us everything we need to know – not just about Marian, but also Grant, who, has already noted her “wrinkled neck, youthfully full and up-tilted breasts”. I haven’t been able to look a litchi without recalling Marian in her too-tight slacks in the 20 or so years since I first read the story.

It’s a complicated, slightly queasy set-up, full of ironic symmetries and reversals, that only Munro could pull off, which she does, of course. Magnificently.

The Guardian

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