Alice Munro’s new collection of short stories, Family Furnishings, has been released one year after she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. She is the first female Canadian author to have won this honor. The book released by publishers Alfred P. Knopf, includes stories written over two decades. Each illustrates her mastery over the genre as cited at the ceremony.
Family Furnishings includes the author’s work from 1995-2014. It serves as a companion to her earlier compendium, Select Stories, that covered the years 1968-1994. It reflects the characteristics she is known and lauded for. Her voice is unique and instantly recognizable. Alice Munro juxtaposes mercy with tenderness, gravitas with snide humor, and refinement with awkwardness. Overlaying these shades with an all-seeing, bone-chilling intelligence.
At the 2013 Nobel Prize Ceremony the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Professor Peter Englund, commented on how Alice Munro writes about so-called ordinary people. Her intellect, empathy and sharp insight however imbue their lives with the “extraordinary.” Her characters display a remarkable dignity as they proceed inevitability towards destruction or redemption. She demonstrates that there is nothing ordinary about people and their lives.
She has written about the misery of urban life in British Columbia, but her stories mainly center on family life in the backward, agrarian towns and flatlands of southwestern Ontario, a region she has made peculiarly her own. Against this bucolic backdrop episodes of adultery, incest, alcoholism and murder are shocking. The effect is all the more striking as they are narrated in her calm, factual voice and manner.
Alice Munro punctiliously details the mind-numbing tedium of mundane occupations: the relegation of the female to domesticity, or the ceaseless, enervating demands of infants. These settings showcase the plots of the inherently dramatic denouements. Recurring themes are betrayal, unseen dangers, the highs but mainly lows of love, the fatigue and melancholy of the eternally, hopelessly pessimistic. This has earned her writing the epithet of Canadian Gothic.
Instead of dwelling on the sensationalism of the action itself, Munro uses it as a stepping off point to deliberate on the emotional life and thought processes of the protagonists and the events and circumstances that lead them to these junctures. She demonstrates how the quotidian is only a setting for the extraordinary uniqueness of each individual’s particular condition. Her characters and their relationships as men and women, parents and offspring, friends and lovers are all propelled by their feelings, relationships, life experiences, decisions and actions towards their inevitable destinies.
Populated with real-world characters, Alice Munro’s collection of short stories entitled Family Furnishings encompasses the entire human experience. Passion echoes with the untrammeled exhilaration of first love. The Bear Came Over the Mountain is the story of a guilty, cheating husband who remorsefully goes to extreme lengths to make amends to his wife as she loses her grasp on reality. Runaway describes the anguish of leaving home. The Children Stay details the consequences of abandoning a marriage. Too Much Happiness explores romantic love and is based on the life of Sophia Kovalevsky, the 19th century mathematician.
There are the semi-autobiographical tales that Alice Munro herself describes as “closer to the truth than usual.” We see fictionalized glimpses of the author’s own story in Dear Life, Working for a Living, and Home among others.
She mostly employs a direct format, but has also experimented with some unusual literary devices. My Mother’s Dream is partially narrated from an infant’s viewpoint.
During the speech at the prize giving ceremony, the Nobel laureate was lauded for her ability to write a short story that in succinct terms covers decades of the protagonist’s life experience. She presents in a few pages what most novelists elucidate in hundreds, summarizing the decades as she moves deftly back and forth between her characters’ viewpoints and timelines. “She is a virtuoso of the elliptical and the master of the contemporary short story,” said Professor Englund.
At 83 years, Munro claims that she has arrived at the end of her writing journey. Her decision will disappoint her legions of fans. If she keeps to her word, Alice Munro’s collection of short stories in Family Furnishings will be a fitting final tribute to this subtle and sympathetic explorer of the human condition.
By Bina Joseph
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