Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

Runaway

by Alice Munro

Alice Munro’s 11th collection is exactly what readers expect from this writer, quintessential Munro at top form. At the same time, every story in it is surprising, turning on unexpected, even inexplicable human actions.

With each successive collection Munro has demonstrated her mastery over the short story form, of which she is inarguably the foremost practitioner in Canada and perhaps the world. However, as she has pushed the edges of her craft over the years, some readers have come to find her work increasingly spiky, her tales daunting and a little cold in their clarity. Runaway, like her previous collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, is moderated by greater gentleness and compassion, as the hungry restlessness of characters shifts to acceptance, sometimes even accord.

Meticulously constructed, seemingly effortless, these eight stories have an instantly recognizable Munro-like quality of plainness. Munro’s attics and sunrooms and darkened parlours, simply furnished, are laid out with such spare precision we feel we could find our way around them. The geography too is familiar, looping between small-town Ontario and B.C. – the terrain Munro herself seasonally inhabits in Clinton, Ontario, and Comox, B.C.

Runaway is as dark as any previous Munro collection; death is present in every tale. In the title story, that darkness is palpable. The disappearance of a little white goat runs counterpoint to a couple’s unravelling relationship, their riding stable sabotaged by bad luck and worse weather. An older neighbour tries to rescue the young wife, Carla, from the mess she is in by convincing her to leave.

But on the bus to Toronto, Carla’s nerve fails and she phones her husband. As he confronts the older woman later that night, the long-lost goat reappears, pre-empting hostilities. Husband and wife make their peace, yet astonishingly, the goat vanishes, never to be spoken of. With another writer, the goat could be an obvious symbol of truth sacrificed so the marriage can continue. In Munro’s hands, concentric circles of potential meaning open: is the goat a primitive piece of magic, a “good angel” or a sacrifice, a victim standing in for or prefiguring a tragedy?

After this disturbing beginning, the book settles into three linked stories. Juliet, a classics scholar, meets a man on the train on her way west and makes a life with him on the coast. The long expanse of time and the shifting focus of these stories anchors the book as the themes of love, chance, and loss play out over generations. On a trip back east, in the face of her fragile mother’s luminous confession of love for her, Juliet tidies away the tea things and flees back to B.C. History repeats itself as she herself is left by the daughter she adores, a loss as inexplicable and devastating to her as her own loss must have been to her mother.

In “Passion,” a classic Munro tale, a bright girl embraced by her fiancé’s loving family is carried off by an older stepbrother. The consequences are tragic, and yet her willingness to go owes itself to an instinct of survival, a sense that living up to her fiancé’s expectations would have been fatal to her spirit.

Characters pay a price for thinking they can go on without a spiritual dimension. The smart atheism of the 20th century, the casting off of Christian bonds, comes home to roost. In the rather sour “Trespassing,” a couple’s belated attempts at a sacrament to mark a child’s death come off as ludicrous and false, doing nothing to erase grief or restore a balance. These urban people, self-displaced in a small town on the basis of sentimental memories of childhood summers, find themselves in a minefield of old secrets, revealed through coincidence and mistaken identity.

A similar confusion of identities is at work in “Tricks,” a much more satisfying story in which a young woman’s flight from constricting responsibility takes the form of annual pilgrimages to the theatre in Stratford, Ontario. One year she meets a man who holds out a chance of a different kind of life. The plot turns cleverly on a Shakespearian twist, yet the mechanism behind it is much older, pagan and atavistic.

The final story, “Powers,” at 65 pages, covers the most extended period, from a young woman’s engagement in the late 1920s to her “widow’s cruise” on the West Coast a lifetime later, and beyond. Munro juxtaposes two women, the brisk, self-absorbed Nancy, and Tessa, a strange girl with extraordinary, fragile powers. Yet it is Nancy, the skeptic and rationalist, who succeeds in peeling back the obscuring film over the past. She protests that she doesn’t want to live the past – she only wants to “open it up and get one good look.” That glimpse has such a weight of truth that though it may be dream or imagination, it is real and meaningful – like Munro’s own work.

The many layers and richness of observation in Munro’s writing make it impossible to say that the book or even a single story is about one thing or another. But throughout the work Munro captures the defining human struggle to make sense of a capricious or shapeless reality, to reach “the discovery that leaves everything whole.”

For some, this can only be done by bailing out, jumping ship, taking flight. The glimpses of meaning the universe yields up may be little more than a heap of flies behind a curtain, but even that is precious, and a form of grace.