Short stories by Alice Munro, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013, are a veritable delight to read. Her command of the English language, description of human emotions, ability to economically capture the many twists and turns of human life, and her deep understanding of family and personal relations make her stories a source of rich and joyous experience. “Runaway”, a collection of eight stories first published in 2004, was awarded that year's Giller Prize and Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.
Every single story of this book has a one-world title which conveys some message and captures the essence of the lives it portrays.”Runaway”, the title story, narrates a segment of the life of a young woman, whose relationship with her husband who is a much older man is full of problems and her attempt to run away from him. However, in the end, she cannot go very far and comes back to him; and probably remains trapped in a bad marriage.
The next three stories, “Chance”, “Soon, and “Silence”,have a common thread, the main protagonist named Juliet, and Munro portrays different stages of her life. Juliet is single and a modern woman--highly educated, intelligent and independent-minded--who is trying to carve out an existence for her in the Post-War Canadian landscape. She grew up in a small community in Ontario not far from Toronto, then moves back and forth between Vancouver and Whale Bay in British Columbia, and finally takes a job as a TV host. Munro, in her own style, tracks the life, work, and lifestyle on Juliet from her childhood to her days as a single mom struggling with the estrangement from her only daughter.
In “Chance” we learn about her trip to find the man whom she met on a train journey. She was studying Greek and was on her way to a short-term teaching position in Vancouver; he was heading for his home town, Whaling Bay. The opening pages of this story starts with Eric following up on their short encounter on the train where they develop a flirtatious relationship. During the ride, they strike up a conversation which continues into a discussion about stars and constellations, of which he knows well, and the Greek heroes she knows about. While working in Vancouver, she receives Eric's letter, she decides to go to Whaling Bay where he worked as a fisherman, and took care of his wife Ann who was left disabled by an automobile accident. When Juliet gets there, she learns of Ann's death, and she embraces the rugged lifestyle of living with Eric in the wilderness.
The next story, “Soon” takes us to Juliet's travels to see her parents. They still live near the town where she grew up. The conversations between the daughter and her mother, as well as with the father are constructed to leave many things to the imagination. For example, when her father left the job, and started farming, it is never said that he did so because he got into a fight with his fellow teachers over their dislike of Juliet's lifestyle as a single mother. Her mother Sara, who was bed-ridden, showed her affection for Juliet, when she said,
"When it gets really bad for me–when it gets so bad I–you know what I think then? I think, all right, I think–Soon. Soon I'll see Juliet". Sadly Juliet fails to acknowledge her mother's statement. Towards the end of this story, we notice Juliet has her regrets, or so it appears, in the following last paragraph.
“But she had not protected Sara. When Sara had said, soon I'll see Juliet, Juliet had found no reply. Could it not have been managed? Why should it have been so difficult? Just to say Yes. To Sara it would have meant so much—to herself, surely, so little. But she had turned away, she had carried the tray to the kitchen, and there she washed and dried the cups and also the glass that had held grape soda. She had put everything away.”
In “Silence”, Juliet is hoping to be reunited with her estranged daughter Penelope, who is using the weapon of silence against her mother. In a review written in French, Corinne Bigot writes,
“While the story brings to the foreground a theme that runs through many stories by Alice Munro—the role of silence within the network of domestic relations—it offers one of Munro's most complex explorations of the reverberations of silence. As the young woman uses her silence as a weapon to sever the relationship with her mother, effectively wounding and punishing her, the short story first focuses on the power of silence. The reader then becomes aware that another loss, another dismissal and another silence lie at the heart of the story. Although “Silence” apparently reads like a tale of unresolved grief, a reversal of the values of silence is at work in the short story. As it weaves the fate of its heroines into a Greek tale and denies closure, the story leads us away from powerlessness to hope, from the politics of silence to a “rhetoric of silence.”
“Powers” covers half a century of the life of a woman and is mixed with first and third person accounts of the life of Nancy, Ollie and Tessa. The story begins with an entry on March 13, 1927 in Nancy's diary just before she gets married to a doctor. Then there is Nancy's friend, Tessa, who has physical disabilities but has the gift of clairvoyance. Tessa marries Ollie but Munro hints that he did so with the intention to exploit her talents for commercial purposes. The story then continues in 1969, when Nancy, widowed, goes to visit Tessa in a mental home. In the final episode, Nancy meets Ollie and the story then runs into an interesting fusion of dream and hallucination which I had a hard time comprehending.
In “Passion”, a middle-aged woman goes back to visit a house where she made a momentous decision of her life. Alice Munro in this story projects about the importance of passion in life and love. Grace, a girl from a humble family gives up the prospect of marriage to Maury who comes of a well-to-do family but noticed that there was no passion in their relationship. They never kissed each other or had any physical intimacy. Then one day Neil, his elder brother, takes her out on a ride as they had gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. He is a doctor and touches her, in a friendly way, and her eyes opened. She finally realizes that a marriage without passion is not what she wants, and moves on with her life leaving Maury behind.
In “Tricks” I found similarities to a Bengali play I heard almost 40 years ago on Akashbani radio. In that play, a man and a woman strike up a conversation on the phone. This leads to long conversations from time to time and evolves into friendship. Finally they decide to meet at a bus station, but bad weather and missed bus trips upset their plans and create hurt feelings. Finally, after many years they find out what happened but by that time it is too late to try again. In “Tricks”, the beauty is not in the plot but in Munro's description of different time periods and locales. Two time pictures, forty years apart. We also find a theme that is always there in her short stories: espousal of women's rights. Take the following paragraph:
“The prospects of marriage have opened up again, in a limited way, at her time of life. There are widowers looking around, men left on their own. Usually they want a woman experienced at marriage—though a good job doesn't come amiss either. But Robin has made it clear that she isn't interested. The people she has known since she was young say she never has been interested, that's just the way she is. Some of the people she knows now think she must be a lesbian, but that she has been brought up in an environment so primitive and crippling that she can't acknowledge it.”
To end this review, allow me to mention that among modern short story writers, Alice Munro brings her unique gift of story-telling, time dimension, and an uncanny empathy for women's struggles to juggle careers, family ties, and a sometimes hostile environment in some mesmerizing tales in this collection.
The reviewer lives and works in Boston, USA.