Book review: Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro touches the heart

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 August, 2015, 11:07pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 August, 2015, 11:07pm


There are the books we take on journeys, and the journeys we take through books. It's been a long time since I've been to the shores of Lake Huron, Ontario; specifically to my grandparents' cottage in Inverhuron, where we used to go every summer.

This is Alice Munro country, although I didn't know it then. I discovered her stories at university, and became obsessed with Lives of Girls and Women, Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, Who Do You Think You Are? - all published before I was born.

Her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, always takes me back to my grandparents' cottage by the lake.

My grandmother, who was born in the 1920s, and Munro, who was born in the early '30s, grew up in nearby towns, and I sometimes imagine they shared the same experiences, the same ideas about the world. In Dance of the Happy Shades, small-town Ontario is a coded, rigid place, with expectations about what is proper for a woman to do, think and feel. The language can seem dated, the setting slightly foreign. Even Munro's characters have old-fashioned names: Gladys, Myra, Flora. But her girls and women are wholly modern. They are passionate, jealous, clever and ambitious, oppressed by what is expected of them and by what is denied. In the story Sunday Afternoon, a 17-year-old country girl named Alva goes to work for Mrs Gannett, an affluent lady who never fails to make it clear where Alva's place is.

The narrative hinges on an alcohol-soaked summer afternoon. Alva is growing up, discovering new things to desire, when Mr Gannett's cousin enters her life.

These early stories seem simpler to me than Munro's later work. Her characters have aged with the author, and the pieces become longer, more complex, less about one event one Sunday afternoon and not as fixed on an ending with a twist or the kind of insight Alva has.

In Walker Brothers Country - which opens the book - an unnamed girl sees a glimpse of the life that her salesman father led before he met her mother. It's a tale of longing, repressed feelings and looking back at life's missed opportunities.

My grandparents' cottage was sold when they became too frail to drive, and I haven't returned to Lake Huron in almost 15 years, except through this collection. I see flashes of myself in these characters, but the stories themselves are a journey to my grandparents' time. They make me think of dusty roads and rural life, of a place that is very familiar but just out of reach - and of sweetened gin in the bottom of a glass on a summer afternoon.

Dance of the Happy Shades  by Alice Munro  (Vintage)

The Guardian