Coming to Grief; Fiction Choice

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), February 21, 1999 | Go to article overview

Coming to Grief; Fiction Choice


Byline: FAY WELDON

The Love of a Good Woman

by Alice Munro

Chatto [pounds sterling]14.99

N&D Bookstore price: [pounds sterling]11.99

****

Take nothing at face value. The title of Alice Munro's seductive new collection of short stories, The Love of a Good Woman, is ironic. The love of a good woman is as likely to kill as cure.

This is what happens in the title story, when Munro takes us to a Canada of far away and long ago, of small towns, good people and routine lives. Trust nothing, nobody, not even the small boys who discover the drowned body of a respected local optometrist and fail to report it. They, too, have self-interest to consider. Is it murder? An accident? Suicide? Truth will out, but takes its time. With Munro, the kindly death-bed nurse is not so kindly, after all, and the dying remain as spiteful in their deaths as in their lives.

This is the gentler end of anti-romantic literature, leaving the reader wiser, better and more melancholy. A kind of languid, accepting sorrow drifts over our minds. Munro seems to be telling us that, deep down, all we have in commonare our wounded sensibilities, the memory of our embarrassments, the puzzles we never solved.

But what a good writer she is, and how assured and convincing is her chronicle of Canadian life through the century. The difference between past and present is scarcely discernible as her characters look inwards, desultorily framedby time and community.

Yet how strong and vivid is the outer world. First sentence, first page, and we're in there with her: `For the last couple of decades, there has been a museum in Walley, dedicated to preserving photos and butter churns and horse harnesses and an old dentist's chair and a cumbersome apple peeler and such curiosities as the pretty little porcelain-and-glass insulators that were used on telegraph poles.' How secure we feel already: so firmly wafted off to another time, another place, plunged into nostalgia yet rooted in the present, waiting for what happens next.

Mostly in these stories, Munro comforts us: betrayals happen, as do disappointments, but all will yet be well. A baby nearly dies in `My Mother's Dream', but the mother wakes to reality in time. …

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