What’s most remarkable about Alice Munro’s latest collection is the vast psychological terrain she covers in just 10 stories, while rarely straying from her home territory of rural Ontario.
It’s common for Munro’s stories—exploring what one of her characters calls the “emotional housekeeping of the world”—to range across decades, in a scope that’s more akin to a compressed novel than a singular offering of short fiction. In one such story, “Deep Holes,” she traces the reverberation of a child’s accident at a family picnic in his troubled life years later, while in “Face,” a boy’s disfiguring birthmark has much to do with shaping the man he becomes. Still, Munro is equally adroit at painting on a smaller canvas, as she sketches the tension and conflict among three women tending to a man dying of leukemia in “Some Women.”
Several of the stories feature macabre plot twists, as in “Free Radicals,” where a cancer-stricken woman finds herself face-to-face with a dangerous intruder and invents a horrible secret about her past in order to persuade him to spare her. In “Child’s Play,” two women bear for a lifetime, and in strikingly different ways, the burden of a terrible act they committed one summer at camp. And in the haunting tale “Dimensions,” a young mother who loses her three children to her husband’s violence is reconciled to their loss in an almost inexplicable fashion.
The collection’s title story, and its longest, takes Munro far from her Canadian roots. In “Too Much Happiness” she creates a deep and plausible interior life for Sophia Kovalevsky, a real-life Russian mathematician and novelist of the late 19th century, elegantly connecting Kovalevsky’s passion for the precision of mathematics with her humanistic side. “Rigorous, meticulous, one must be, but so must be the great poet,” she writes.
While Munro is not above poking some good-natured fun at herself, referring to the author of a collection of short stories in the story “Fiction” as “somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside,” this latest work from a master of the form demonstrates why she’s earned her place of honor in the house of fiction.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.