Too Much Happiness, By Alice Munro

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The Independent Culture

Alice Munro's latest collection of short stories includes themes that have long been present in her work - the complexities of family ties, the constraints of marriage and motherhood. But the older she gets, the more brazen her short fiction has become.

Stitched into these shocking stories of murder and infanticide are smaller acts of casual misogyny. Young women prove most at risk. In the semi-pornographic tale, "Wenlock Edge," a sophomoric student invited to dine with her roommate's elderly lover is forced to take off all her clothes, leaving only her "most flagrant part" hidden beneath the table.

Meanwhile, in the story "Deep-Holes", a husband is revolted by his wife's breast-feeding. "Dimensions", the book's dramatic opening story, sees a neighbour laying the blame for a small boy's asthma squarely on the shoulders of his "overcontrolling, overeducated" mother.

As ever, Munro's writing is distinguished by her ability to convey the passage of a life in a few pages, dipping and diving between the thrills of childhood and the regrets of old age.

In "Child's Play", two summer-camp buddies, Marlene and Charlene, drown a girl with special needs by pressing down hard on her "rubber head" during a rough swim session. Decades later, on her death-bed, Charlene asks her long ago co-conspirator to organise a visit from a Catholic priest. "For a long while the past drops away from you easily," comments Marlene. "Its scenes don't vanish so much as become irrelevant. And then there's there's a switchback, what's been all over and done with sprouting up fresh..."

The title story, based on the life of the 19th-century Russian mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky, is the only entry in the collection that feels over-stuffed. This Chekhovian tale opens just as Sophia has recovered from the suicide of her first husband and the death of her sister, and has accepted an academic post in Stockholm. Cautiously she dreams of a future with a law professor called Maxsim - a man who "takes up too much room, on the divan and in one's mind" - and the satisfactions of professional acclaim. Although set in another time and place, many miles from small-town Ontario, the classic contours of Munro's storytelling are all in place here.

The past always catches up with Munro's struggling hopefuls, and that longed-for happiness is generally in short supply.

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