In Ontario

Carol Shields

  • Friend of My Youth by Alice Munro
    Chatto, 273 pp, £13.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3663 4

The Canadian writer Alice Munro once likened a good short story to a commodious house whose every room possesses an exterior door. So accommodating a house, she wrote, is capable of admitting visitors through any number of openings, just as a story can be entered by way of its separate sections or paragraphs or even its individual sentences or words. The rewards for the reader, she suggests, have to do with language rather than with the sequence of narrative, the rhythm and surprise of linguistic persuasion overriding the fortunes of those who populate the pages of novels – what these characters want and what they eventually get.

It is a pleasure, then, to open Alice Munro’s new collection of short stories, Friend of My Youth, and find on every page the particular satisfactions of prose that is supple, tart and spare, yet elegant and complex. A typical Munro sentence, with its exact and loving syntax, gestures toward worldliness, toward literary sophistication and art, while at the same time guarding, by means of her unpredictable cadences and spirited vocabulary, the particular salt and twang of rural Ontario – the corner of the universe that Alice Munro calls home. Her voice is unmistakably her own. Artlessness collides with erudition in almost every paragraph, but in Munro’s hands these contradictions seem natural, just one more manifestation of a planet whose parts are unbalanced, mismatched, puzzling and random.

Friend of My Youth is Alice Munro’s seventh book. Readers familiar with her work are often taken with the lovely fresh suddenness of her titles. Dance of the Happy Shades, her first book (1968), finds its name in a young child’s piano piece, a name brimming in the title story with the kind of minor-key paradox that spills out into the whole of the book. Something I’ve been meaning to tell you (1974) pays tribute to a favourite theme, the accidental or unintentional gaps in communication that crown us with misery or misunderstanding or, very occasionally, with salvation. Who do you think you are (1978, published in England under the title The Beggar Maid) picks up as a running thread that familiar rebuke to those who have the audacity to reach beyond the expectations of others. Munro’s new book takes as its reference the flowery, scented phrases once used, twenty or thirty or forty years ago, in the salutations of letters. ‘My dearest Mary, my darling Ruth’, ‘My dear little Joanne’, ‘My dear old friend Cleta’, ‘My lovely Margaret’, ‘Friend of my youth’.

Such beseeching endearments are scorned by the woman who is the narrator of the book’s title story. ‘My dearest Mary, my darling Ruth’ – these are the terms used by the narrator’s mother when writing letters to her old school friends; they represent, to the daughter’s mind, self-conscious pleas for attention, powdery, pathetic appeals for love, for validation. She is enraged that her mother, who is dying slowly of a paralysing disease, can find the energy to pick up a pen and enter into a conspiracy with falsehood. ‘ “I have friends all over the country,” she would say defiantly. “I have dear, dear friends.” ’

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