As this garrulous title seems to promise, Alice Munro”s 10th collection of short stories is integrally relational. Once again, Munro offers a work occupied with the largest questions ones mainly concerned with love and death. Her lucid talent for unraveling the seemingly ordinary threads of human lives reveals Munro as a master of details the fine points are what make these stories credible and compelling.
Munro does not seem to be one who takes great risks with her prose. Even her language is agreeable and basic though scattered with a few bright metaphors. Her characters are no different. They are, more or less, nothing fancy. Most live not far from where Munro herself makes her home, small towns and rural areas near Southern Ontario and British Colombia. The distinction between what is city and what is not is, in fact, often a source of conflict among her characters. A slightly more cosmopolitan relative is often caught looking in on the lives of those who never made it out of town.
The women tend to be very domestic, and among the men the majority are professorial types. But Munro”s tendency toward the absurd rescues her stories. The women are asymmetrical, clever, strong and always capable of creating drama. The men are laughingly honest, uncertain and always interesting. Her characters seem to be on the path toward mediocrity, but always manage to rescue themselves and somehow enchant.
And, of course, in line with reality, every love affair is bittersweet. Fidelity is questioned or brushed aside in almost every one of the nine tales. One character muses over the sort of love that she has for her husband, “She would say she loved him, and mean it to a certain extent, and she wanted to be loved by him, but there was a little hum of hate running along beside her love, nearly all the time.”
The title story involves a housemaid who it seems no one could love, a widower, his son-in-law and a silly prank played by a couple of teenage girls. This is probably the most complicated story and I found myself changing my mind several times as to the expected outcome.
Another story, “Post and Beam” follows the young wife of a somewhat unresponsive husband. She begins to realize the weight and consequence of the “bargaining” in a woman”s life after a visit from her small-town cousin. In “Comfort” we learn about the death of a high school biology teacher who is driven to resign by the creationists in his small town. His wife is left to pick up some of the pieces he was too stubborn to deal with. She eventually instructs the undertaker to tell her exactly what had been done with his corpse during cremation.
“Queenie” is the story of a woman who thinks back to the reckless life of her stepsister who had eloped with one of the middle-aged neighbors and inevitably disappeared forever. But, perhaps the most charming tale of the collection is “The Bear came Over the Mountain”. A habitually adulterous husband finds the tables turned when he sends his wife to a nursing home and he mulls over what extents he will go to for her happiness.
Munro”s latest collection is satisfying, and filled with several gems that could almost fill your stomach like a serious meal. Munro”s characters are dynamic and real, and like all of us, constantly striving for some sort of grace.