Open Secrets by Alice Munro Vintage $72 ALICE Munro's stories are deceptively simple. These eight tales of 30 to 50 pages each have a small-town Canadian setting and each is composed in Munro's compact but elegant prose. Yet this apparent simplicity and the mundanity of the lives of those whom the stories are about conceal a complexity of theme, of hidden and inner lives that time are patience are needed to explore and reveal. Despite the title, not all the stories yield their secrets readily. Sometimes a second reading peels away another layer to reveal what lies beneath. Others are more reluctant still, and the reader can do little more than pick at the edges, hoping enough will come away to cast light on dark corners, add new pieces to small but intriguing puzzles. Munro is a Canadian writer, based in Ontario, where these stories are set, and British Columbia. Despite the short-listing of 'The Beggar Maid' for the Booker Prize and her many Canadian awards, she is often regarded as underrated. With Open Secrets, her value has received further well-deserved endorsement and recognition outside her own country; it received this year's W H Smith Literary Award. Covers rarely often much indication as to what a book has to offer. But in this case Vintage deserves congratulations - the blue, shadowy palm holding a single, tiny but perfect and luminous daisy is a finely judged tribute to the short, yet beautifully formed works within. The trick lies in prising open the fingers to reveal the flower. Sometimes Munro allows the fingers to part willingly, as with the young, mail-order orphanage bride who reveals through her letters why she confessed to killing her husband when the evidence and a witness to his death while felling trees says clearly that she didn't. In others, the secret is apparently open to the reader, but not to those in the story from whom it is being withheld. So in the final story, Vandals, the actions of the young woman who trashes a house when asked to check whether a storm has damaged it are described in detail. It is the owners who trusted her, and whom she tells it has been wrecked by vandals, from whom the truth is withheld. But there is another truth not so readily yielded up by this apparently simple piece - why does she do it? Motivation is at the heart of many of these stories - what drives the independent woman who is the focus of each? In posing that question Munro covers much territory, despite the limited geographic confines of these small towns. Settings range from last century to modern day and the issues canvassed include marriage and feminism, domestic violence, adultery, sexuality and servitude. All have been published before, most in The New Yorker, to which Munro is a regular contributor. There's a bleakness about them, partly deriving from the weather and harsh physical conditions many of the characters must endure in the Canadian winter, but it's more than that. The women here are facing the same kinds of issues and challenges and making the same sorts of discoveries about themselves and others as women do the world over. So often the options are limited, the choices equally unpalatable, outcomes inevitable and grim, perhaps unbearable. There are questions here which confront many women: is it worth the disapproval of others to follow your own principles? Why should independence be sacrificed for the sake of a relationship with a man? How to get back a deserting husband - and, if you succeed, is he worth having after all? Why do women endure physical and emotional pain when the means of removing it is apparently simple? Of course, few things are as simple as they seem and this applies equally to Munro's stories and to the lives of women they bring to life. These women cook and clean and endure unsatisfactory sex, they work and raise children - though it is always the women themselves, not their offspring, who are the focus here. The stories are not equally effective. At times, the mundanity which grips the women's lives threatens to engulf the stories. But just as that seems in danger of happening, Munro uncovers the distant twinkle of another gem and the reader is dazzled.