I’ve been getting steadily more interested in Alice Munro since reading one of her short stories in The Penguin Book of International Stories by Women and following it up with her 1998 collection, The Love of a Good Woman.
This collection covers the period 1968 to 2004 and the earlier, more autobiographical stories, while solid and interesting, are not as good as her later work, though the first story in the collection, ‘Royal Beatings’, is a great look at the family. For me, the collection really picks up at ‘The Progress of Love’, which is a tremendous story about memory. I noticed that a lot of the stories are about attempts to reconstruct women’s lives, usually by a narrator who wants to put the story to some kind of use in her own life. In ‘The Friend of my Youth’, the narrator tries to reconstruct the story of a woman called Flora Grieves who appears to have been done-down her entire life, but Flora determinedly resists her attempts to confirm the story. ‘Meneseteung’ is another story reconstructing a woman’s life, this time that of a late nineteenth-century female poet’; it’s a lot weirder and darker, pointing to the historical silence that often falls over such women’s lives. In ‘The Albanian Virgin’, the narrator comes to terms with her own sexual desires through reconstructing the story of an eccentric English woman and her strange Albanian husband. ‘Vandals’ is a sinister and suggestive story about a young woman who takes it upon herself to destroy the house of the neighbours who appeared to befriend her when she was a child – make of it what you will. ‘Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage’ is an awesome story about actions having unexpected consequences.
Munro has tremendous insight into women’s lives, especially into the constraints that shape our lives. In Munro’s stories people make constrained choices and those choices have (often unforeseen) consequences. She isn’t judgemental, seeming to understand that people generally try and do their best with the hand they’re dealt in life. But she’s a great writer because she’s prepared to go there, to take an unflinching look at the randomness and cruelty of life. Despite the often dark themes (even the underlying sense of horror) I find that a high proportion of her stories give me that ‘Ah yes’ moment when a writer manages to get to the root of some kind of experience.