To start by writing about a book's ending risks spoiling it for the reader. Fear not, though: this review need not come with a warning. The last story in Alice Munro's New Selected Stories merely (and I say "merely" with reticence) ends by iterating that well-worn cliché: "These days you never know." But Munro does not let it rest there, adding a final "Never know" that echoes in the head as if it were the last toll of a bell that rings throughout this astonishing collection.
Only a writer who has achieved true mastery over the short story can create Munro's quiet devastation. She has been rightly lauded both in her native Canada and abroad. In 2009 she won the Man Booker International Prize for her overall contribution to fiction.
Each story grasps at a moment of private realisation. Not grandiose moments of self-discovering epiphany blown in with fanfares for change; rather, they are realisations born out of the unexpected — present in life but "never known" until particular objects crop up (old family furniture, an optometrist's case), or a particular occurrence: a stranger striking up conversation on a train, say.
Perhaps it is as Munro creeps into older age — she has recently celebrated her eightieth birthday — that death has come to dominate her precise and lucid prose. From the first story, "The Love of a Good Woman", taken from her 1989 collection of the same title, through to the last, "Free Radicals", which comes from the tellingly titled Too Much Happiness, death becomes an increasingly insistent presence.