Alice Munro (2006) Runaway.

I read the introduction by Jonathan Franzen. I can’t remember much of what he said. I’d guess that he talked about the way she makes a long story a short story. I’d guess that he talked about the way characters come to life on the page and just when you figure you’ve got a fix on them they do something that throws you, a poetic volte, and the story switches direction, goes on a different track that lets the reader see the characters—their motivations—more clearly. I’d guess you’d be asking why Alice Munro needs any introduction.

In the first story in the collection, ‘Runaway’, ‘Carla heard the car coming’. She lives in a caravan with Clark and the incessant rain is smothering them and their business of tending horses. Everything in their life is shit, including their relationship and Carla doesn’t know how to fix it. Clark thinks blackmailing the woman in the car, Mrs. Jamieson—Sylvia to her friends—would tide them over. But Sylvia has an eye for Carla and helps her run away. So far so soap-opera, but Carla on the bus leaving Clark is half-cocked, unsure. The denouement shows a breath-taking understanding of human nature and how we fence ourselves in.

The second story in the collection ‘Chance’ gives the reader time and place. ‘Halfway through June in 1965, the term at Torrance House is over. Juliet has not been offered a permanent job — the teacher she has replaced has recovered…’ Juliet teaches the Classics, dead languages, which is quirky and acceptable for a male teacher, but in Vancouver makes her decidedly odd. Juliet receives a letter from a man she met on a train. It’s addressed to ‘Juliet (teacher)’ the man doesn’t know her second name. Somehow it reaches her. On a whim she decides to visit him. There was something between them on that train journey, an incipient romance, and even though her potential paramour is married with a sick wife, Juliet is determines to go and see him in Horseshoe Bay.

‘Soon’ and ‘Silence’ has Juliet leaving Horseshoe Bay. Her husband has died and she is going to visit a friend – and then on to visit her daughter. Juliet’s Classic’s education has, in a curve ball, worked for her and got her a decent job as television interviewer on a local station. Her daughter is taking time out in that well-trodden path ‘to find herself’. Juliet looks forward to seeing her. They’ve always been so close. Here is where Munro stretches time, so by the end of ‘Silence’, Juliet is an old woman looking back on life and the choices she made and asking ‘what if?’

‘Passion’ is in some way my favourite. We are back on Horseshoe Bay territory. Grace is visiting the Traverses’ summer house among the ‘stupid lakes’. She had been engaged to one of the Traverses’ sons, but she wasn’t sure if she loved him. She wanted to be sure, but he seemed so right. Munro picks this love apart and weaves a different spell. Genius.


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