Many of the established authors reviewed in this piece have been nominated for or have won major literary awards. Their credentials are impressive, and tallying the sheer number of these for every work cited here would result in a staggeringly high figure, although one might be forgiven for wondering if such nominations and awards have now become calling cards, mere tokens of establishment respectability. The debate about the value of competition in the literary field will no more diminish than the competitions themselves. Many of the works of fiction seem, to this reviewer, to have earned their tokens of prestige well and fairly. Others might have done so more because of regional or local preference than enduring merit, but surely time will sort these works out into their proper historical places. Happily, excellence, when it appears, is obvious and in good supply.
To take one of the most deserving examples, one wonders if Alice Munro really needs to be reviewed any more. Every collection has seemed stronger than the one before it, although this is a fallacy born out of enthusiasm for the latest production. Munro's work has always been satisfying, immaculately observant, elegantly drawn, perfectly shaped. Certainly the reading world in this country and elsewhere has come to expect nothing less than exquisitely wrought stories with each new publication.
Runaway easily lives up to every expectation. It is a superb collection of eight flawless compositions. Typical of Munro's style, the stories give the impression of an effortless elegance. One can only speculate about how much drafting has served such impressions. It is one thing to have a great memory, as Munro clearly does, but it is another to harness it to the craft of fiction. Consider this passage in the title story, when Sylvia, an older teacher, is reflecting on her relationship to a young female neighbour: [End Page 24]
Every so often there had been a special girl student in one of her botany classes - one whose cleverness and dedication and awkward egotism, or even genuine passion for the natural world, reminded her of her young self. Such girls hung around her worshipfully, hoped for some sort of intimacy they could not - in most cases - imagine, and they soon got on her nerves.
This is quintessential Munro: observant to the finest point of truth, turning a feeling over like that until all its sides are exposed and confronted. It surely is a terrific trick to turn a familiar thought into such a surprising realization. One almost always has the sense of seeing into the mysterious hearts of even the most enigmatic characters, most of these being women.
In this story 'Runaway,' Munro reminds us of her younger writing self, as well. The subject here is both the neighbour girl who is tempted to leave her husband and the feisty young goat named Flora she cares for. In Munro's widely anthologized early story 'Boys and Girls,' a young horse named Flora is freed from her stall by the young main character/narrator, who is acting on an impulse of gendered rebelliousness. The more recent story explores that same subject from a different and older point of view, so that the young rebel is now a more complicated character, especially as seen though the eyes of the older mentor. Both stories are essentially about the same impulse to break out, but it is as if they are speaking to each other across the writer's own lifetime.
The question of maturation comes up most vividly in a trio of linked stories later on in the collection. 'Chance,' 'Soon,' and Silences' all focus on the story arc of Juliet, initially an uncertain young woman who takes a road away from a ph d and towards an older man. 'Chance,' the title that speaks to the nature of Juliet's fate, ends with a modest degree of resolution, or as much as Munro's characters are ever allowed to achieve. But there is something about this woman and her emerging sense of herself that Munro wished to extend into another stage of her existence, one fraught with more chance and even more fate. In the...