Vaguely aware of Alice Munro as an acclaimed Canadian short story writer, I decided to try her first volume of short stories after seeing and being quietly impressed by the film Away from her, an adaption of her story The bear came over the mountain. (Incidentally, and before I start singing Ms. Munro’s praises, I think Julie Christie deserved the best actress Oscar for this film).
Having begun Dance of the happy shades, I settled in for a thoroughly enjoyable visit to the farms and quiet towns of south-western Ontario. In the space of only ten or twenty pages, Alice Munro gives startling insight into the past, present and future of each of her characters, conjuring up a world of which it might be said that still waters run deep.
In Walker Brothers Cowboy for example, a young girl and her brother take a trip with their father on his daily rounds as a door-to door salesman which in the 1930’s “keeps the wolf from the door. Keeps him as far away as the back fence.” Slowly, so subtle it’s almost unnoticeable, details are added to this picture- the failed fox farm and coming down in the world of this family, the mother’s resentful efforts to get by, the father’s dogged attempt to put on a brave face. An effort which seems to falter after a rude and unequivocal dismissal, leading to a visit which makes the young girl “feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.”
Each story is vivid, empathetic and intriguing, with the truth of a life gradually and convincingly revealed. Anchored in a very specific, rural Canadian world, these stories none the less capture universal human situations perfectly. The thoughts of a lone dissenter amongst a vocal group for example, from The Shining Houses:
“She was trying desperately to think of other words, words more sound and reasonable than these; she could not expose to this positive tide any notion that they might think flimsy and romantic, or she would destroy her argument. But she had no argument. She could try all night and never find any words to stand up to their words, which came at her now invincibly from all sides: shack, eyesore, filthy, property, value.
And these were joined by other voices; it did not matter much what they said as long as they were full of self-assertion and anger. That was their strength, their proof of their adulthood, of themselves and their seriousness. The spirit of anger rose among them, bearing up their young voices, sweeping them together as on a flood of intoxication, and they admired each other in this new behaviour as property-owners as people admire each other for being drunk.”
This collection of short stories is amongst the best I have ever read. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and am eagerly anticipating reading more of the Munro oeuvre soon. It will be interesting to see how her writing has developed over the years from this, a highly accomplished and memorable debut.