In case you missed it, last week Canadian author Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and as many news outlets noted, Twitter was positively brimming with good cheer, as writers everywhere celebrated the well-deserved recognition of the writer Canadians call “our Chekhov.” The short story has few practitioners as skilled as Munro, now 82, who famously began writing stories as a young mother, finding their completion took “less time.” Lucky for readers that the form turned out to be one that suited her—since her first collection appeared in 1968, she has produced fourteen in all—and garnered numerous awards and prizes, including Canada’s Governor’s General Award, PEN/Malamud Award, the Rea Award for the Short Story, O. Henry Award and many more.
If her work is new to you, I really do envy your discovery. Munro is known for stories set in her home landscape of western Ontario, and focus on the intricacies of relationships—yet do so in ways that are never sentimental. Her stories are told in a voice that intimates the deepest thoughts and feelings of a character, but are never cloying or sentimental. Munro is the furthest thing from it: her narrators are sharp-witted, sardonic, even biting in their observations. So where to begin when first entering Munro country?
My recommendation is to begin mid-career. It’s there you’ll find her classically novelistic stories—where the density of novel is packed into thirty or so pages. The stories of this period may not be as stylistically daring as those that came later, in more recent collections such as Runaway. But there is something classically satisfying about the stories written 1982 and 1998, and the collections are, in this reader’s view, vintage Munro: The Moons of Jupiter, The Progress of Love, Friend of My Youth and The Love of A Good Woman are some of Munro’s most classic. Narrowing it down even further, as impossible as it is to choose, I’d direct first-time Munro readers to The Love of A Good Woman. There you will find such classic stories as “The Children Stay,” a chilling tale of adultery and its effects, viewed from the perspective of years later. Or “Before the Change,” an epistolary account of the adult daughter of a widowed country doctor, who moving back home learns the secret of the blackmail his housekeeper had been conducting against him for decades. The title story of the collection is a domestic murder mystery, with an ailing husband, a devoted nurse, curious boys, and clues set down in a collage of time and memory.
Munro revels in what she calls “knotty” situations, where she can hold a mirror up to the complexity of life, and apply her astonishing eye to the details, gathering time and events in her own unique fashion. Munro has famously referred to her narrative structure as that of a house, in which the reader is free to wander through its rooms in any order she pleases. Munro has said it’s a way she herself prefers to read stories—though I have to say, if you’re just starting out reading hers, I recommend staying with the order in which she wrote them. Only because that way, it’s certain you won’t miss a thing.