Rarely in Alice Munroe’s stories does she ever seem to lose the pace of the narrative. Her focus may wander back and forth in time and place, or from one character to another, but she is always in control. That is to say, her stories command the reader’s attention. Place figures prominently in her work, mostly Canada as a place, especially outlying towns and areas. She doesn’t celebrate place, or long for it nostalgically, but it’s frequently there, in the background, occasionally the foreground. Munroe’s stories tend to be long ones—not verging on short novel length, but long. She develops characters at length. We learn much about them. We inhabit their minds and sensibilities and come to know them. Even so, they can surprise us. In a sequence of stories taken from Munroe’s collection Who Do You Think You Are (1978) centered on a woman named Rose, the character gradually changes from a sympathetic and innocent young girl someone who wins our sympathy and interest to an unlikeable, self-absorbed, damaged soul.
Munroe’s main characters are almost always women—young women, mothers, single women in middle age or older. There’s not an overtly feminist ethos at work, but constraint—the restraints of a women’s life, whether imposed by geography or money or marriage or motherhood or age—is almost always an issue. Few writers have surprised me more than Munroe. Often in a single sentence, she turns the reader’s perception of a character or a situation or a motive or of the overall narrative on its head, and the story opens up. These may be epiphanies, but not in the Joycean sense. Munroe reinvents the epiphany. More subtle, less dramatic, than Edith Wharton or Henry James or Joyce, her epiphanies still shake the earth.
As different from them as she in fact is, Munroe invokes for me the stories of Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter, if only because her practice of the short story, like theirs, is distinctive, individual, and absolutely deft.