Household hints from jilted lovers

Selected Stories by Alice Munro, Chatto, pounds 16.99
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The 23 tales in Alice Munro's latest book, are all drawn from collections that span the last 30 years of this distinguished Canadian writer's career. Many of the stories are built around quiet and only slightly out of the ordinary events. They almost all involve the kind of daily struggles that family life entails when it is at its most poignant.

In "Walker Brothers Cowboy" we're shown a young country girl's view of her failing travelling salesman father as he takes her and her younger brother on an innocent visit to a woman who is obviously an old flame. Another story shows a woman grappling with feelings and memories as she visits her father in hospital and learns that he has not long to live. "The Progress of Love" has at its heart a daughter's belief that the most powerful expression of love she had ever witnessed was the time her father did not prevent her impoverished mother setting fire to $3000, a legacy from the mother's own detested father.

Many jilted women feature here: "I had my cake baked...I was in my wedding dress" reveals Aunt Dodie in "The Ottawa Valley". Helen Louise in "Postcard" whose long-time boyfriend returns from a family holiday married to someone else, finds herself feeling for the first time in their romance that "she wanted to reach out my hands and touch you." The drama often stems from a complex shifting of sensibilities in the characters, and from their growing awareness of the weight of the secrets they hold.

Many of Munro's stories end with the appearance of an important and clear truth that seems surprising, but often lets us know that the story was about something slightly different from what we thought. Because of this, they often close on a tantalising note, ending with so much potential for future meaning that it seems as though the author leaves the story just when things that would deeply affect the lives of its characters have come into play. I suppose at these points I wished one or two of them had turned into novels.

My two favourites in this collection were "Material" and "Friend of my Youth", both of which show Munro creating situations which are not only fully imagined and completely realised but interesting in every aspect, giving the impression that if they hadn't been written there would be a real need for them.

In "Material" a woman takes us back to an apartment she lived in with her first husband, the writer, Hugo Johnson, where her role was "to throw herself between him and the world." She tells us all about Dotty, the woman who lived downstairs who was a prostitute, and whom she grows to value as a friend. One night her husband's refusal to switch on a water pump during a storm results in the flooding of Dotty's rooms, which seems unspeakably cruel to his wife. Although she might have taken responsibility for turning on the pump herself, "as a patient, realistic woman, a really married woman would have done", she does not, and this failure on both of their parts leads to a marriage guidance counsellor who directly pronounces them incompatible.

Years later, she finds her ex-husband has written a story about Dotty, in which their slatternly, oppressed neighbour is "lifted out of life and held in the light, suspended in the marvellous clear jelly that Hugo has spent all his life learning how to make." She is greatly touched and during dinner with her present husband, Gabriel, and her daughter decides to write Hugo a letter to say so. Yet when she starts to write, the words that come out are quite different: "This is not enough Hugo. You think it is, but it isn't. You are mistaken, Hugo." Although Hugo's story seems to have love at its heart, as it enobles their poor neighbour and helps her modest life "pass into art", what is this worth compared to saving her things from being ruined by rain?

Gabriel's respect for her unhappiness suddenly distinguishes him, and her earlier wondering about whether it was merely his Romanian accent that made her fall for him evaporates and is replaced by something much more solid and enduring.