Disconnected Realities

Mary Hawthorne

  • Runaway by Alice Munro
    Chatto, 325 pp, £15.99, February 2005, ISBN 0 7011 7750 0

If you open a road atlas at Ontario, you can see that the roads charted by the thin red and blue lines of Huron County, adhere to the geometry and history of acreage, drawing rectangles in a sprawl of rural sameness. At one intersection is the tiny town of Wingham (population c.2952), where Alice Munro was born in 1931, and twenty miles to the south, another tiny town: Clinton (population c.3240), where Munro has lived for the past thirty years with her second husband.

Munro seems from the outset to have had little doubt that she would be the heroine of her life. The first of her parents’ three children (the second was born five years later), she was left free – or obliged – to explore the open country around her in solitude. She didn’t play with other children because the family was poor and lived on the outskirts of town; for a time, before his business failed and he became a night watchman, her father was a fox and mink farmer. The climate was dramatic: winters were bitterly cold, and summers fiercely hot and pestilent. Munro was a pretty and precocious child who did recitations on the radio when she was three or four years old. A few years later, at school, she turned awkward and shy; younger than the other children, whom she didn’t know, she felt different from them and kept her distance. Before long, movie magazines had lured her into a fantasy world of glamour and sex. She made up stories, which she planned to make into movies in which she would star. ‘It was more than an escape,’ she said years later, ‘it was a solution. I had all this time to do it because I was not popular and did not have friends.’

Munro’s stories have tended to follow the personal and geographical facts of her life (or various extrapolations of and hypotheses surrounding those facts), many of which were provided a few years ago by her daughter Sheila Munro in an interesting memoir, Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up with Alice Munro. Following the tentative elementary-school beginnings, Munro went on to excel at high school and then to win a scholarship to the University of Western Ontario, where she met her first husband. He offered her the only prospect of escape from Wingham, and was supportive of her writing, though the differences of class between them rankled in Munro. They moved to suburban Vancouver and started a family at once. With the rise of feminism and sexual freedom in the 1970s came affairs, then separation and divorce; the miseries and raptures of the newly discovered sexual self; difficulties with alienated, confused children; the illness, decline and death of one parent, then the other; the inevitable regrets and sorrows. These are some of the familiar threads of Munro’s fiction.

She has never ceased to be enthralled by her own progress through life, as well as by that of her family and forebears, early Irish and Scottish settlers in rural Ontario. She examines particular episodes over and over in different stories, each with slightly different though familiar characters, each with a slightly different arrangement of the facts, yielding slightly different emotional truths. Munro’s sphere of inquiry is both narrow and deep: she knows the larger world because she has taken it on herself to know herself. And because she is someone of prodigious drive and gifts – of intelligence and sensitivity, curiosity and imagination – what she produces is always worth paying attention to. She insists of her narratives that they reveal things which often confirm the reader’s own secret experience or suddenly bring to life something that was until then buried just under the surface of consciousness. Years ago, I came across a note written by Munro in the margin of the last galley of ‘Oranges and Apples’ (a story that ran in the New Yorker, where I was working), which documents the insane things that a character has done in his life in the hope of somehow crashing out of it. He does not know that he is doing these things, and he never does manage to get out, because when it comes down to it he never really wants to. ‘I see this as a fairly normal state of mind,’ her note read.

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