‘Amundsen’ by Alice Munro

Alice Munro is nearly everyone’s favourite short story writer, and she is mine too. I’ve tried to delay finishing everything she has written by limiting myself to a collection a year. I haven’t finished all of Dear Life yet, but I read ‘Amundsen’ some years ago, and now when someone asks me what Alice Munro story I would recommend, I say ‘Amundsen.’ For a while, I was not entirely sure why—it is hardly her best short story. Minutes later I will think—should’ve said ‘Runaway.’ Or ‘Miles City, Montana’. 

I continue to say ‘Amundsen’, because it has all the thematic elements I love best in Alice Munro’s writing: the optimism of a young woman, arbitrary acts of kindness, characters who grow on you despite not appearing for a significant chunk of the story, and heartbreak. What is there to say, life presses on, heartbreak after heartbreak, and really, nothing is the same after the first heartbreak, but heartbreaks are always the same every single time. “It still seemed as if we would make our way out of that crowd, as if in just a moment we would be together,” writes Munro. “But it was just as certain, also, that we would carry on in the directions we were going, and so we did.”

First published in The New Yorker, August 27, 2012. Collected in Dear Life, Vintage, 2013. Read it online here

‘The Beggar Maid’ by Alice Munro

This is my favourite short story. I’ve re-read it several times. It ‘opened up’ to me because it seemed that it was written for me. Or, perhaps, it speaks to most women in their early twenties, I don’t know. I’ll have to ask. In a sense, it’s a story about uncertainty, about navigating important choices while not knowing whether they are the right ones. Munro carefully describes the smallest event and allows its effects to ripple through the story. In this case, the event is someone touching the protagonist’s bare leg in the library. This leads to absolutely everything else, until the final, small yet momentous event – an expression – completes the piece.

First published in The New Yorker, June 27 1977. Collected in Who Do You Think You Are? Macmillan, 1978 – later reissued as The Beggar Maid – and also collected in Selected Stories, Vintage, 2010

‘Friend of My Youth,’ by Alice Munro

This story, which pretends for a while to a kind of staid rural middle-Canadian domestic story of manners, suddenly opens out onto a recontextualizing, explosive endingthat connects the story of the present to a long-ago story an ocean away, and the reader is confronted with the terror of the cause-and-effect chain that history has enabled but the present has obscured, a situation common to all of us when you come to think of it.

First published in The New Yorker, January 1990. Collected in Friend of My Youth, Knopf/Vintage 1990 and Selected Stories, 1997

‘Jakarta’ by Alice Munro

As is the case with so many of Munro’s stories, ‘Jakarta’ is set in the Vancouver area in the 1950s, during the height of the Korean War and the execution of the Rosenbergs. Sonje, who is described as ‘calm’ and ‘Nordic’, is married to Cottar who, at 38, is significantly older than her. Cottar teases Sonje mercilessly about her bourgeoise aspirations. Cottar is a journalist who has scandalously travelled to communist China. He believes in free love and encourages Sonje to sleep with other men, the thought of which makes Sonje unhappy and so she doesn’t follow through. Sonje and Cottar are on vacation in a rented cottage for the summer when Sonje meets and befriends a woman called Kath, who lives in the area permanently with her husband Kent. During their days on the beach, Sonje and Kath discuss the relationships in the book they are reading—DH Lawrence’s ‘The Fox’—but the subtext of their discussion is their own attitudes towards their husbands and marriages. The story explores the fault lines of marriage—the personal struggle either to adhere to conventional notions of marriage or to find alternatives to it. The argument Kath and Sonje have about DH Lawrence’s ‘The Fox’ illustrates this perfectly. Kath and Sonje can’t admit it to themselves, or each other, but they have married the wrong people. What is left so beautifully understated in the story is that, deep down, they both know it.

In The Love of a Good Woman, Vintage, 1998

‘Postcard’ by Alice Munro

I’m afraid it’s true – I prefer her early work. The later stories – so spacious and surprising, technically extraordinary and self-effacing – are brilliant in their own way but it is in the first few collections, where the language is fuller and the emotion is allowed to flow more freely that Munro really does it for me. In ‘Postcard’ the narrator, Helen, has had a long affair with Clare, the scion of a grand local family. When Clare returns from Florida one summer with a wife, Helen’s mother tells her it is her own fault: ‘But once a man loses his respect for a girl, he is apt to get tired of her’. Munro seems to me very like Wolff, in that her subject has always been the complexities, surprises and essential unknowability of human character and behavior – yes, all that vague stuff! – a notion that is perhaps intrinsic to the short story form.

First published in Dance of the Happy Shades (Ryerson Press, 1968)