Review: Alice Munro stays true to form in latest collection, Family Furnishings

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 December, 2014, 12:10am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 December, 2014, 2:14pm

Family Furnishings
by Alice Munro
Alfred A. Knopf

A year after Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature and was cited for her mastery of the modern short story, her publisher has collected 24 of her stories published over the past two decades.

Family Furnishings serves as a companion volume to an earlier compendium, Selected Stories, and is as good a place as any to get acquainted with her distinctive voice: pitiless and tender, solemn and sly, elegant and clunky, and always, terrifyingly intelligent.

The stories are mostly written in a straightforward key, yet some are strange and experimental - parts of My Mother's Dream, for instance, are narrated by an infant. They veer sharply backward and forward in time, the point of view shifting among a host of major and minor characters.

Has any writer ever paid such loving attention to the tedious, repetitive tasks of housework or to the howling, almost inhuman demands of nursing infants? And yet Munro's work cannot be pigeonholed as simple scenes of domesticity.

Braided through her pointillistic accounts of family life, set largely in the farm towns of southwestern Ontario, are shocking episodes of adultery, incest, alcoholism and even murder, always recounted in her calm, matter-of-fact tone. Thus her work has been described as Canadian gothic.

Since the 2012 publication of Dear Life and her winning the 2013 Nobel at age 82, the facts of Munro's life have become known. Born during the depression to parents of modest means, she watched her mother battle with early-onset Parkinson's disease and her father struggle to make a living, first as a fox farmer then in a foundry.

As a housewife and young mother in British Columbia, Munro scribbled stories during her children's naps and between loads of laundry, raising three daughters (a fourth died) before the marriage fell apart. Next a move back to Ontario and a happy second union with a former college acquaintance.

Echoes of her life reverberate through the stories, and while the names and circumstances change, the themes remain constant: the value of hard work, the enduring influence of family, the corrosive effects of class, the explosive power of love, and the beauty and terror of nature. Not the least of her concerns, best expressed in the title story, is her ardent ambition to turn her life into art.

Associated Press