Where to get started with... Alice Munro
Image: Chris Waywell

Where to get started with... Alice Munro

Get to grips with the works of legendary authors while in lockdown

James Manning

Stuck is something everyone is feeling right now – a weird blend of frustration, claustrophobia and longing for what might have happened if this hadn’t. Well, if you’re up for exploring that feeling in more depth, there’s no one who articulates it better than Alice Munro.

Octogenarian, Canadian and one of only 15 women to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Munro writes very, very good short stories: micro-novels of rural or suburban life, occasionally linked by recurring characters or places. Loosely stringing together events, coincidences, fateful decisions and missed connections, often across decades, her stories combine everyday drudgery and occasional flashes of emotion with enough intensity to sear your heart like a juicy steak. Just like life, then.

There are a few things that make it difficult to know where to start with Munro’s catalogue. First up, the sheer volume: more than 150 stories across fourteen collections since the late ’60s. Second, the offputting book covers that make some of the editions look like bad airport fiction, which couldn’t be further from the truth that lies inside. Third is the fact that a lot of her work retreads similar territory: mostly, women being shoved into the ground by time, fate, small towns and smaller minds. Ever feel like something big nearly happened to you and you’ll never properly get over it? Then you might just live in an Alice Munro story.

Admittedly, that’s an oversimplification: Munro also has plenty in store for fans of murders, drownings, buried family secrets and fateful meetings on cross-continental trains. But if her plots are easy to stereotype then her writing is inimitable. I honestly can’t think of any other authors who’ve ever worked such magic from the drab stuff of everyday life. Her best stories are heartbreaking, breathtaking, smack-you-across-the-head page-turners… where almost nothing happens. Read ’em and weep.

Get started with: ‘New Selected Stories’ (2011)

Although it doesn’t include any of her early bangers, this compilation rounds up fifteen superb stories from the five collections Munro published between ’98 and ’09. (Incidentally, it includes the three linked stories – almost a self-contained novel – that Pedro Almodóvar adapted for his excellent 2016 film ‘Julieta’.) They’re mature and elusive, concerned with age and time, and prone to dropping the reader’s stomach rollercoaster-style with a finely tuned sideways-step. If any single Munro book persuaded the Nobel committee to award her its literature prize back in 2013, it might have been this one. 

If you like that, try: ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’ (1968)

Now you’ve got to grips with her later work, it’s time to rewind to the start of Munro’s four-plus-decade career. Instead of dealing with the middle and later stages of life, many of the early stories here are about growing up, giving them a significantly different feel – a Munro palate-cleanser, if you like.

Still into it? Read: ‘Lives of Girls and Women’ (1971)

Sometimes (but not always) referred to as a novel, Munro’s second book is a collection of stories all centring on the life of a single character: Del Jordan of Jubilee, Ontario. Radical and semi-autobiographical, it yokes together the everyday and the universal like nobody’s business. Oh, and it’s funny!

Recommended: Where to get started with... James Joyce

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