For shame you must compose yourself and stay very quiet

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
by Alice Munro

This collection of short stories was picked by my book group. The title gives a clue to its overarching themes and I had an inkling that Munro was well known for her short stories, but otherwise I didn’t know what to expect. I have an idea that she is a bit of a national treasure in Canada so apologies for my cluelessness.

The stories all deal with relationships, of all kinds – couples, siblings, extended family, friends, acquaintances; even the brief relationships established with strangers under certain circumstances. There is nothing fantastical, or showy, or even hugely eventful (though things do happen that with another writer at the helm could be dramatic, or melodramatic). Munro’s style is quiet, understated, acutely observed but not in the biting, sarcastic manner of many a younger writer. She is generous to her characters, reserving judgement even as she reveals their flaws.

All of which sounds like this could be a light, fluffy read, but it most definitely is not. There is a slightly melancholic air about the stories, a sense of disappointment and disenchantment. Lovers cheat and/or break up, people get sick, people die, people lose touch. But it’s not all downbeat. There are small pleasures, small hopes, moments of pure love:

“Her heart had been dry, and she had considered it might always be so. And now such a warm commotion, such busy love.”

Every story stands up to scrutiny; in fact they are almost certainly improved by it. At book club we all had different favourites and all enthused about each other’s choices. We did all have reservations about the first story, from which the collection takes its title. While clever and interesting, it did not have the everyday feel of the other stories. It starts with a woman arranging to ship furniture across Canada, then tells us who she is and why she is doing it, then continues her story, but it skips perspective several times, zooming in on a character for a few pages at a time. At 54 pages it is the longest story in the book and possibly the most experimental. It certainly intrigued me but also frustrated me, which was actually a reaction I had a few times.

It is almost certainly a good thing to find yourself shouting (on the inside) at a character for their actions – it shows both that you have been drawn into the story and that you find the character believable – how else could you presume to think they would act in a certain way? And Munro definitely populates her stories with believable people. She deftly, in just a few lines, tells you what you need to know and yet sometimes the whole story will be a gradual revealing of a person’s character:

“She looked both frail and hardy, like a daisy on a long stalk.”

Brilliantly, you could just as easily argue that little or nothing happens in these stories, or that too much happens. Those mundane details of everyday life that Munro picks out can seem so inconsequential, yet at the same time you realise that the characters’ concerns are often the same as your own so-called disasters. It is difficult balancing guilt at having moved away from family and the need to build your own independent life and it is galling when someone plays on your guilt.

This is one of many examples where Munro seems to take a side, only to give sympathetic ear to the other side of the debate later on, often in another story. To balance the unwanted family guest, there’s a very sick man who could really do with his family making the effort to visit. That, incidentally, comes in the final and for me most emotionally engaging story, “The bear came over the mountain”.

I am beginning to realise how very much there is to say about these stories and that I already want to re-read some of them. At first I was not impressed and even on immediately finishing the book I felt that it had all been a bit old-fashioned, too much about marriage with most of the wives staying at home and having babies. But the more I reflect the more I see how well Munro has captured the realities of a certain kind of life that is familiar to most of us in the western world. None of her characters is hugely rich or desperately poor. Those who face hardship have support. These are the most middling of ordinary lives, and that is why they ring so true and say so much:

“And yet – an excitement. The unspeakable excitement you feel when a galloping disaster promises to release you from all responsibility for your own life. Then for shame you must compose yourself and stay very quiet.”

Published 2001 by Alfred A Knopf in the US, Chatto & Windus in the UK.

2 thoughts on “For shame you must compose yourself and stay very quiet

  1. Susan October 19, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    Ahh yes Alice Munro, a master of short stories, revered in Canada for sure. I read one of her books in June and liked it. See http://www.thecuecard.com/node/712. I plan to read more in the future. Impressive that your book group picked it.

  2. Nose in a book October 20, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Susan My book group reading list is pretty eclectic! I like the sound of the one you reviewed.

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