Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fiction with the sting of fact

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro (Random House/Struik R300)

Alice Munro is one of our contemporary masters of the short story, who has made her literary reputation through her crafting of short fiction, that often-neglected and under-valued genre. This year, she was awarded the third Man Booker International Prize for her overall contribution to international fiction, an accolade which firmly cements her reputation.

In Too Much Happiness, her latest collection, Munro once again mostly focuses on the lives of her fellow Canadians, barring the novella-length piece which closes the book. Hers is a gaze that is tender and compassionate, a gaze that bathes her stories in a sensitivity that is acutely felt.
This is not a writer who judges her characters, nor does she mete out punitive actions.

There is suffering, then again, there is always suffering when casting an eye over the human condition, but we feel that Munro's characters are well taken care of, gently led from beginning to end.

And yet, there is darkness in Munro's stories. Her simple story-telling hides the truth of the sorrow that is out there, presenting portraits that are seemingly simple, innocuous tales.
I've long been a fan of Munro, and have read all her collections. But, strangely, there's a darkness in these stories that I haven't noticed in her previous volumes, and which makes reading Too Much Happiness an interesting experience.

However, there is also a truth that we all recognise once we reach the final line of so many of these stories.

The opening story, 'Dimensions', highlights the recent tragic events in the life of Doree, a young woman who has to take three buses to reach the prison where her husband is held. She is working as a chamber maid, has changed her appearance by bleaching her hair and losing weight and is seeing a counsellor.

She is in the throes of change, a change brought on by tragedy, which is only slowly, and horrifying revealed as the story unfolds. A moment in time helps the healing, and although time will continue to heal, we feel, life is rarely that cut and dried.

In 'Fiction' Munro cleverly contrasts the world of fiction with that of reality. The story is told in two parts, sometime at the cusp of the 1980s and today.

What is remembered, and noticed, differs according to whom is doing the remembering. In this story Joyce divorces her husband when he has an affair.

Years later, at a party she gives with her second husband, she meets a young woman, a writer who has just published her first book.

When Joyce reads it, she gasps at what the woman, a child from her own past, has written. But the young writer does not recognise Joyce, barely acknowledges her.

Meanwhile, Wenlock Edge, set in a long-ago 1950s of university students sharing digs, is a strangely unsettling narrative.

The unnamed narrator is paying her studies by working in the university canteen and living cheaply.

When she is forced to share with the quiet, yet compelling Nina, she is introduced to a world that is far from pin set suits and propriety.

Yet, the story unfolds gradually: we are made aware of the hold that people have on each other, and the loyalty that binds them.

People are strange, no more strange than Mr Purvis, who prefers that women read poetry to him in the nude. A compelling, utterly memorable piece.

Both 'Free Radicals' and 'Face' present shocking, yet totally believable portraits of ordinary people living ordinary lives yet hiding secrets and afflictions which subtly twist the dynamics of their interactions.

In 'Free Radicals' Nita has just, unexpectedly, lost her husband. Yet, when an intruder bursts into her home, we learn her secret; the reasons are compellingly believable, and we even cheer her on. In 'Face' the damage inflicted on one born with a livid birthmark is re-lived, a damage that waxes and wanes and yet determines a person's life.

The damage that other people do is again the subject of another story, 'Child's Play', a story of children who engage in action that is anything but childish, and yet is also firmly anchored in that world of seeming innocence.

The novella-length 'Too Much Happiness' is a strangely compelling tale, although the focus this time is on Sophia Kovalevsky, a Russian mathematician and novelist in 1891, a time when mathematicians had to be male, and females in this decidedly masculine environment suffered for having been born so.

The fiction examines aspects of her life, her love affair with a man who was reluctant to commit to her, and a final, perilous journey to Stockholm. It's a bitter sweet story, a story which opens new avenues of interest in a woman whose name now lends itself to a crater on the moon.

Published December 21 2009 in Pretoria News

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