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.
For Munro, it seems, death is a silencing of each human story. Enid, the protagonist of the opening story, toys with possible death after Mrs Quinn, a young wife dying of kidney failure in Enid’s care, reveals her complicity in a murder. But how much of what we do and say is really true? As the ailing Mrs Quinn says, “I bet it’s all lies.”
As we create our own fictions out of reality, so Munro’s writing conjures fiction from life. Her eye (and indeed ear) for detail reaches right into the immediate experience of the tangible world, whether evoking the wild Canadian landscape as seen from a train window or recreating the harsh, oath-laden accents of a murderer wanted for triple homicide. The latter may sound too dramatic for the succinctness demanded by the short story, but in Munro’s skilled hands the tragedies of life pass from crescendo to diminuendo, and thence into tunes played below the surface of each individual’s own preoccupations.
Collections of unrelated short stories suffer from an unsatisfying lack of completeness. The same characters link all the stories taken from her 2004 collection Runaway and clearly there is more to the narrative this creates than the triptych of stories chosen for this new volume.
Despite this, reading Munro’s New Selected Stories is like taking a masterclass in the genre. To read a short-story collection cover-to-cover is a habit-forming pattern of reading. You finish one story and then mentally prepare yourself for the next. The unexpected becomes a theme thanks to Munro’s grasp of the extent to which we are creatures of habit, and her ability to play on this.
There are moments in which she toys with the idea of higher power, particularly in earlier stories, where words like “glory” and “prayer” flash out from otherwise stark writing. The beauty lies in Munro’s refusal to answer the question of whether human beings are at the mercy of a higher plan. Each ending could equally derive from the apparent contingency of human existence. The only answer she will allow us to glean is that really, in the end, “you never know”.