Life, woman, truth by Alice Munro

November 01, 1998|By Beth Kephart | Beth Kephart,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Love of a Good Woman: Stories," by Alice Munro. Knopf. 320 pages. $24. It is more than somewhat thrilling to watch an authoritative writer at work.

To study the tangle and the clarity of the words upon the page. To submit to the embrace of a tale.

Alice Munro is one of the greatest living short story writers, and with "The Love of a Good Woman," her 10th collection, she once again delivers the elixir of brilliantly imagined and faithfully rendered fiction.

She gives us terrific psychological and structural complexity in a style that never once obscures.

Munro is famous for her particulars, and rightly so. In the title story, an optometrist is found drowned - his Austin having sunk into a river, his death a mystery Munro patiently unfolds. We will learn the gruesome details of his death, but first Munro, with a deliberative pace, introduces us to the dead man's creaking town and some of the oddly unsettled characters living there. Nothing whatsoever is rushed, and yet no words are wasted.

Here is Munro, in the story's early pages, telling us just what the river-bloated corpse looked like: "[The hand] rode there tremulously and irresolutely, like a feather, though it looked as solid as dough. And ordinary, once you got used to it being there at all. The fingernails were all like neat little faces, with their intelligent everyday look of greeting, their sensible disowning of their circumstances."

In "Before the Change," a story of deep moral irony, the narrator, herself having just relinquished a child for adoption, finds herself working at her elderly father's side during a young woman's illegal abortion. It is the sort of scene Munro excels at, full of submerged thoughts and multiple, knotting storylines. It also gives Munro room to exercise her terrific talent for the telling detail. "Madeleine's eyes flicked over me with the coldly distracted expression of someone who sees that a human being can be about as much use as a stopped clock," says the narrator, of the girl on the abortionist's table.

Sadness and disappointment is the mood of these stories. Love, for the most part, is a compromise and a contract, not a rapture. Life is not an exhilaration but a mess of poor alternatives and minor and major betrayals.

Women are in the forefront. Wives and widows trapped in domestic routines, stunted self-discovery, pregnancies. Mothers and daughters trampled by mutual distrust. Munro's men are more distant and less complex. Less apt to worry over the big-picture stuff, because they have jobs, or at the very least, a decent sense of humor.

There are exceptions, of course. In "Jakarta," one of the most technically brilliant stories in the book, Munro moves all across space and time and in and out of points of view to tell the story of a man and a woman who look back over 40 years to recall the summer that changed their lives.

Munro is a genius at aging her characters, at establishing a mood of mystery and regret. But what I love most about her is her very willingness to trust language to convey just what is true.

Beth Kephart is the author of "A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage," a 1998 National Book Award finalist for nonfiction, and is working on a novel and another nonfiction book.

Pub Date: 11/01/98

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