‘Tricks’ by Alice Munro

And to finish: Munro. Her short stories defy the form’s very own laws: “a glimpse of something viewed from the corner of the eye,” V.S. Pritchett tells us; “a certain unique or single effect,” Edgar Allan Poe instructs, while Carver emphasises narrative compactness too: “Get in. Get out. Don’t Linger. Move on.” ‘Tricks’ is slender, yes, (at just over thirty pages it’s not butting up against the ‘novella’ tag) but – as with so many of Munro’s works – it carries a disproportionate heft. Instead of singular ‘glimpses’, abrupt entrances and exits, characters are observed and felt at multiple points in space and time – whole lives fanning out in front of us amid remarkable sworls of detail (the name of the thing and the name of thing before it became the thing, an almost geological approach…). And yet, in spite of their stature, Munro’s characters feel stealthily – almost mystically – remote.

‘Tricks’ spans forty years of Robin’s life: her burdened youth (her asthmatic, snipy sister); her romance with Danilo, a Montenegrin who repairs clocks – the door opening to a new world of change, “the risk of her life”: “I will be here next summer in the same place,” Danilo promises. “The same shop. I will be there by June at the latest.” And then an interlude in Robin’s sixties (her hair, once “dark”, now “charcoal-gray”) in which she nurses patients at ‘The Sunset Hotel’, the town’s psychiatric ward. The story is in playful dialogue with As You Like It(Robin’s annual escape from her “makeshift, temporary’ existence sees her take a trip by train to see a Shakespeare play) but even though there’s a tying up of loose ends – the outing of confusion in the story’s final phase – ‘Tricks’ is less a comedy, more a troubling meditation on the incalculable impact of slights of fate, the longevity of shame, the stark disjunction between our public and private selves.

First published in Runaway, Vintage, 2019

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