JUNE 1999 | VOL. 3, NO. 6
ALSO THIS MONTH
May's review of Mitchell's "Your Other Half" inadvertently stated that the authors had been divorced twice each. In fact Wayne Mitchell has been divorced once, while his wife Tamara has been divorced twice. ROM apologizes for the error.
Alice Munro's newest collection of short stories, "The Love of a Good Woman", is an absorbing examination of the unexpected turns that ordinary lives can take. Like many of Munro's earlier works, these eight stories center on revelations, often dark or even sinister, that transform the characters' understanding of themselves and each other.
In "Cortes Island", a young newlywed living in her first apartment takes on the care of her landlady's invalid husband. Although unable to speak, he reveals a disturbing secret about the past through his voluminous scrapbooks. The device of the scrapbooks gives the story the dramatic tension and the elliptical quality that characterize all the stories in this collection. Munro's eye for telling details is another distinctive quality of her work. Using these simple yet evocative details, Munro compresses entire personalities and environments into a single paragraph, capturing, for instance, the landlady's tenuously maintained placid veneer by describing her collection of banal knickknacks.
Although the revelations in many of these stories, including "Cortes Island", are highly dramatic, their real significance lies in the subtle internal changes they bring about in the characters. In "Save the Reaper", the protagonist Eve, like the newlywed of the previous story, must cope with a shaken sense of security and order. On a quiet outing she rediscovers a beautifully ornamented wall she remembers from childhood. But it is the quite ugly and menacing scene that follows that is the real discovery, disturbing the relative calm of her summer vacation. Not even a positive revelation about her daughter's marriage can fully restore her peace of mind.
Sometimes the changes that these discoveries cause come too late. In "Before the Change", for example, a young woman shares her secrets with her stern father after finding out that he has dark secrets of his own. But the closeness that these revelations might bring is cut short by his sudden death. Nonetheless, her understanding of the man has deepened, changing the way she sees their relationship.
Other characters have plenty of time to act on their new perceptions. "Rich as Stink's" young protagonist Karin is just beginning to carve out an identity for herself. Dressing up as her different role models, she finds that the clothes, and by extension the roles, do not suit her. When her last costume change results in a frightening accident, she realizes her obligation to stand on her own feet.
Karin's changing clothes, like the husband's scrapbooks in "Cortes Island", could come across as rather obvious devices in the hands of a less skillful writer. But Munro, who has won Canada's top literary prize - the Governor General's - three times, handles these devices admirably, keeping the plots from becoming melodramatic. Indeed, the stories move at relaxed enough pace to allow readers to think about the characters' inner lives. It is this combination of psychological depth and skillful plotting that makes this book interesting.
C.J. INGE, an English Literature student, is a contributing writer for Renaissance Online Magazine.