Sunday 18 April 2010


This week, CLR is happy to present another review of one of Random House's books. Too Much Happiness is the latest anthology of short stories by Alice Munro and it is reviewed here by award winning writer Sarah Hilary. Enjoy!

My first experience of reading Alice Munro was her story, Wild Swans, a story with a taut, irresistible rhythm that made the shocking event at its heart feel entirely natural. This, to me, is the marvel of Munro’s writing. She knows a good story must contain a grain of surprise, an occurrence we do not expect but which nevertheless feels part of the living pulse of the story. At her best, she puts her considerable skill into structuring the story around the surprise, drawing us towards it in ways we cannot always anticipate but which, ultimately, satisfy our curiosity and our appetite as readers.

There are stories in this latest collection that show Munro at her skillful best.

Child’s Play is one, a masterfully plotted tale of childhood terror and guilt in which our sympathies are divided, sub-divided and then put through the equivalent of a moral meat-grinder in a way that perfectly reflects the confused emotions of the heroines, and victims, at its heart. The character of Verna is vividly described, put at arm’s length from us and then brought nearer until we start to experience some of the heroine’s irrational terror. We know it is irrational; we guess Verna has more to fear from the heroine than she from Verna, but we’re compelled to feel the heroine’s emotions. The story’s ambiguous moral, and its suspended ending, is the better for that.

She was skinny, indeed so narrowly built and with such a small head that she made me think of a snake. Fine black hair lay flat on this head, and fell over her forehead. The skin of her face seemed dull to me as the flap of our old canvas tent, and her cheeks puffed out the way the flap of that tent puffed in a wind. Her eyes were always squinting.

The collection begins with a frightening story, Dimensions, about a woman’s gradual and painful recovery from appalling loss. Munro doesn’t deal in the commonplace, least of all when it comes to emotional responses from her characters and readers. In Dimensions, Doree’s response to the shocking loss of her children is not what we might expect, or it is not only that. There is no familiar ground for the reader to tread here; instead we are confronted by an alien scrubland of grief and survival, hope and despair. It may not be familiar, but it feels real. Honest. Discomfiting. No easy place for us to rest, or pass judgement of our own. I thought this was a terrific story.

I felt less strongly about Fiction (as an aside: I’m often disappointed by Munro’s story titles, which rarely do justice to the content). A truncated novel rather than a short story, to my taste Fiction was out-of-whack almost from the outset. Adultery separates a woman from her husband. It seems painful, the point of the story. But then we pick up years later and everyone in the novel is remarried for the third or fourth time; adultery is the norm. A witness to the original adultery has written a novel about it, but she fails to recognise the heroine of her own story when they are brought face to face after years apart. The story fell flat at the first fast-forward to the future, and didn’t pick up pace again. As another aside: I don’t care for stories about writers, and was turned off by the long passages recited from the author’s novel which read as a plot conceit, putting me at arm’s length from the heart of the story and keeping me there.

Wenlock Edge (great title, but not Munro’s own) confused me, I admit it. It contains the creepiest encounter I’ve read in any story in a long time, somewhat echoing the shock at the heart of Wild Swans, but I didn’t understand the ending, an exchange of addresses that implied a betrayal or a reconciliation but of whom or what I was left unsure.

Relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, childhood friends, are explored in Face, Some Women, and Deep-Holes. The latter left me cold, petering out after a promising start into an awkward standoff between mother and son (again, this story relied on the device of fast-forwarding, losing me along the way). Face was suitably shocking, and sad, very sad. Some Women flirted with the idea of domestic prostitution, uneasy adult bartering as witnessed by a child. Both stories are effective variations on Munro’s theme of the depths and shallows of human isolation.

Free Radicals reverted to the terrifying territory of Dimensions and Child’s Play. An middle-aged woman, newly widowed and dying of cancer, confronts a killer in her home. The action is centred with unflagging focus on this confrontation. Munro catches us in the moment and doesn’t let go. The structure is drum-taut, told in real time. No fast-forwarding, no chance for our attention to waver. And then the treat of a second shock, skillfully hidden in the unfolding top-story, written almost as an aside but with the power to stun us a second time.

‘Pretty plate,’ he said, holding it up as if to see his face in it. Just as she turned her attention to the eggs she heard it smash on the floor.

‘Oh mercy me,’  he said in a new voice, a squeaky and definitely nasty voice. ‘Look what I’ve gone and done now.’

‘That’s all right,’ she said, knowing now that nothing was.

The story I liked least – in fact I struggled to finish it – was the story from which the collection took its title. Too Much Happiness, as Munro explains in a footnote, is inspired by the real life of Sophie Kovalevsky, a novelist and mathematician from the nineteenth century whose life story, full of surprises, clearly captured Munro’s heart and her imagination. The problem, for me, is that the discipline of telling a true story stifled Munro’s real imagination, preventing her from following her own rhythm and introducing her own surprises. It didn’t engage or satisfy me because I was too aware that I was missing out on Munro’s gift for telling stories of her own invention.

Wood is exactly such a story. Seemingly simple, deeply complex, with a heart that beats right off the page. A man made lonely by his wife’s breakdown drifts further and further into his isolated life as a woodcutter. His love of trees is palpable, as is his newfound happiness and the guilt he experiences as a result. His withdrawal from his wife and the rest of the world nearly costs him his life, yet when he is saved and sees his wife restored (a thing he has longed for) he acknowledges a sense of loss:

Because he knows he isn’t feeling quite the way he thought he would if her vitality came back to her. And the noise he makes could be to cover that lack, or excuse it…

Some loss fogging up this gain. Some loss he’d be ashamed to admit to, if he had the energy.

This character’s voice is pitch-perfect, his inner monologue a Munro-patented confusion of conflicting emotions that draw their credibility and their power from exactly that confusion. Nothing is black and white here; Munro paints in shades of grey, with skill and tenderness and unflinching compassion. Long may she continue to do so.

[Sarah Hilary ( is an award-winning writer whose fiction appears in The Fish Anthology, Smokelong Quarterly, The Best of Every Day Fiction I and II, and in the Crime Writers’ Association anthology, MO: Crimes of Practice. Sarah won the Sense Creative Award in 2010, and the Fish Historical Crime Prize in 2008. Most recently, her work was Highly Commended by Aesthetica and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. A column about her mother, who was a child internee of the Japanese, was published in Foto8 Magazine and later in the Bristol Review of Books.]

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