Women on the Shelf – Runaway by Alice Munro

Short stories are something that I’ve always struggled with, and I don’t think I’m alone! Short stories are often considered a difficult genre, both for readers to fully engage with, and for publishers to promote. Often I can feel a bit ‘cheated’ by a short story – I end up getting so attached to the characters, and feel bereft when they vanish after 20 or so pages, gone forever.

But Alice Munro has always been on my list of authors that I really must read, so I recently dipped my toe into her collection of short stories, ‘Runaway’. Now in her 70s, Munro has been described as being the best fiction writer working in North America, yet very few of my friends have read her, so I came to this book with no idea what to expect. It turns out that everything people say about her writing – that her stories are ‘breathtaking, leaving you ‘winded with their toughness and brilliance’ is true. Her stories are so incredibly measured, beautifully crafted and understated, that you don’t care if the characters only flit in and out of your life, because your life feels all the richer for having met them.

Runway is a mediation on a variety of themes, most obvious being that of flight or escape. Her characters flee in a variety of ways – successfully, unsuccessfully, with large rebellion and small. Muno perfectly captures small town life in all its difficulties and beauty. Coming from a small village myself, I could really identify with some of the characters conflicting emotions about this type of life – the sense of safety and security it creates, which at the same time can constrain and stifle you. There is a deep sense of sadness and often loneliness running through many of the stories, yet the feeling of purposeful, deliberate decisions made by the characters imbues the stories with a real sense of each character’s inner strength. My favourite story was ‘Chance’, in which a young girl, Juliet, has a chance meeting with a man on a train, whom she late travels to see in a remote coastal town. The next two stories, ‘Soon’ and ‘Silence’, track the later stages of Juliet’s life – as a mother, daughter, and middle-aged woman, which sees her estranged from her own daughter and finding her feet as an independent woman again. This was a lovely, unexpected bonus of the book – the chance to spend longer with a character that really captured my imagination.

Runaway, is a quiet book – it could be said that nothing much remarkable happens in any of the stories, but that seems to be Munro’s true genius – she makes art out of everyday life. But I suppose with everyday life being so rich with emotional complexities, morality, betrayals and the sheer wonder (and at times heartache) of being alive, there is little need for elaborate adventures. Runaway would be perfect for anyone who likes strong character-rich writing. I’m happy to have found a short-story writer who doesn’t leave me feeling short changed, and I can’t wait to exploring the fictional worlds Munro has created in her other books.

Runaway by Alice Munro, published by Vintage Books, 2006

Review by Wendy Kirk

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