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An old intelligent-looking woman looking wryly at the camera.
Nobel prizewinner Alice Munro has died at the age of 92. TT News / Almay

Alice Munro, master of the short story: superlative tales that exalt the drama of the everyday

Affectionately termed “Canada’s Chekov”, Alice Munro died on May 13 at the age of 92, leaving behind a unparalleled legacy of masterful short stories.

Born in Ontario in 1931, Munro started writing seriously as a teenager but abandoned her English and journalism degree. She married her first husband James Munro at the age of 20 and moved to Vancouver, where the couple raised their three daughters. Divorcing 21 years later, she returned to Ontario where she lived with her second husband, Gerald Fremlin.

It is no wonder then, that much of Munro’s fiction concerns marriage and motherhood in small towns, her stories often spotlighting the inherent drama of the domestic. Her gift for exalting the everyday was widely recognised; Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, described by the Swedish Academy as a “master of the short story”.

I first encountered Munro as a high school student in Canada, assigned to read the title story from A View from Castle Rock (2006). I didn’t like it. I felt conned by its description as a short story, by one of our leading female authors. I thought it was too long and that there were too many men.

More than a decade later, I feel the exact opposite, which is not so much testament to personal development, as the power of subtlety in Munro’s fiction: hers are stories that demand to be reread, ideally over a period of years. This comforts me, as it means there are still many more stories of Munro’s to come, when we consider all the possible ways they are yet to be read.

Women and children first

In Munro’s fiction there are tricks, but never gimmicks. Podcast discussions of Munro’s work, for example, often conclude with a debate about what actually happened at the story’s end. In Corrie, was the protagonist’s love for that married man reciprocated? Did the narrator of Gravel sabotage her sister deliberately?

The illusory nature of Munro’s stories are extraordinary for tales which situate themselves so earnestly in the mundane, or rather, the everyday. Perhaps Munro’s gift lies in demonstrating how these are not the same thing.

One way in which Munro explores the elusiveness of the everyday is by centring children in her fiction, given an adult’s representation of childhood is always an estimation.

Novelist Margaret Atwood paid tribute to Munro by recording a reading of the title story of her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968). This story is narrated by a teenager attending an annual music recital hosted by Miss Marsalles, an eccentric dance teacher whose social circumstances have deteriorated in recent years.

Since it would be crass to cite her financial situation, she is mocked by the mothers instead for her insistence on the inherent goodness of children:

She has this way of speaking of children’s hearts as if they were something holy. It is hard for a parent to know what to say.

Her supposed naivety is accredited to her spinster status, allegedly ignorant to the realities of raising children. And yet, at the story’s end, it is those who so judge Miss Marsalles that are revealed as ignorant. Their obvious discomfort and “profound anxiety” about the unexpected performances of children with Down’s Syndrome reflect their ugly preoccupation with social status.

Here, children highlight the hypocrisy of taboo. It is the adults who are most uncomfortable with the non-neurotypical children, and not the other children in attendance – least of all the narrator, whom we sense is forming an opinion separate to her mother’s. And possibly for the very first time.

This ongoing tension between obligation and devotion in parent-child relationships features throughout Munro’s oeuvre. In one of her later stories, Axis (2011), college student Avie has a dream that she is pregnant, and resigns to keeping her baby locked in the basement, where she will remain for the rest of her life (or at least until the dream’s end). Avie tells her best friend Grace, who is perturbed:

“That’s an awful dream,” Grace said. “Do you hate children?”

“Not unreasonably,” Avie said.

This question, and Avie’s retort, runs subtly like a refrain throughout Munro’s fiction, where children are both threatening to her female characters’ freedom, but central, too, to their sense of self.

In The Children Stay, for example, Pauline leaves her husband and two young children for a man she meets in an amateur theatre production. The timeline of this story is the lead up to her leaving, and the day after, when her husband tells her on the phone: “The children stay [with me]”.

A woman being presented with an award on stage.
Munro’s daughter Jenny accepts the Nobel Prize for Literature on her mother’s behalf in 2013. AP / Alamy

The immense grief from this verdict, the “acute pain”, is mentioned, but not dwelt upon. Instead, in the story’s closing paragraph, Munro condenses years into lines:

Her children have grown up. They don’t hate her. For going away or staying away. They don’t forgive her either.

In one sense, the plot of this story is characteristic of Munro’s fiction, where women pursue reckless men, leaving behind husbands who loved them, but are often not in the least bit surprised. It’s as if these men knew all along that their marriage seemed like a cage to their wives.

Munro’s protagonists rarely end up with the men they left marriages for, but perhaps that’s not the point. These are not strictly love stories, though there is much love in these stories. Instead, they ask complicated questions, like: how does a mother balance her intense devotion to her children with her yearning for freedom? How do we grieve the lives we never lived?

In this sense, Munro has left an imaginative blueprint for her readers; it is through rereading her stories about grief that her fans might begin to mourn the master who wrote them.

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