“Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014” by Alice Munro (Knopf, 620 pages, $30)
Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, has been called the greatest living writer of short stories in English. I would not dispute that.
She has published one novel and 139 stories, in itself a remarkable achievement. But more remarkable is the consistent quality of her stories.
After her last collection, “Dear Life,” she stated that she was done writing stories. So this collection is a fitting culmination of her career.
For those who haven’t read Munro, this book can serve as a treasure to savor, along with her previous “Selected Stories, 1968-1994.”
“Family Furnishings” draws from six collections over those two decades, presenting the best of those books. Each of these 24 stories is excellent and has its own unique appeal, but let me comment on only a few while encouraging readers to read them all.
“The Love of a Good Woman” opens with a description of items in a museum in a small town. As the details accrue, we wonder what importance they have. But as the story moves through its several chapters and introduces various characters, we come to see that the details all fit into a concise story with a powerful effect.
Munro’s language, though deceivingly accessible, can be vividly beautiful. Some boys find submerged in a lake a car with the body of Mr. Willens, the local optometrist, inside. They see a hand that “rode there tremulously and irresolutely, like a feather, though it looked as solid as dough. And as ordinary, once you got used to its being there at all.”
The boys agree not to tell anyone what they found, but for one boy a word falls across his mind, and “from the days when he hadn’t even known what it meant, he got a sense of sorrowful plummeting. A weight hitting dark water, far down.”
These two descriptions reveal both the physical world of the story and the inner life of its characters. They also touch on the themes of people carrying the weight of guilt for actions they never thought they would take part in.
In the title story, Munro again presents several characters in different periods of time from different angles. We meet Alfrida, who tells the narrator that the stuff in her apartment is “family furnishings, and I couldn’t let them go.” We all carry our pasts and our relationships with us.
In listening to Alfrida, the narrator comes to a realization. Alfrida’s words, she writes, “jolted me and released me, right away, to breathe a different kind of air, available only to myself.” Rather than hold on to stuff, she wants to grab out of the air “the cries of the crowd … like big heartbeats, full of sorrows. Lovely formal-sounding waves, with their distant, almost inhuman assent and lamentation.” She, like Munro herself perhaps, wants the life of a writer.
In “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” from which Sarah Polley made the excellent film “Away from Her,” a husband must place his wife in a facility for patients with dementia. Despite or because of his past infidelities, he maintains his love and commitment toward his wife.
In other stories, Munro shows the consequences of leaving home (”Runaway”) or leaving a marriage (”The Children Stay”).
Although Munro brings alive her characters’ quotidian existence, she also incorporates shocking events. In “Dimensions,” a man murders his three young children, and in “Child’s Play,” two teenage girls drown a girl they look down on. Reading about such events, say, in the newspaper, one might mutter, What monsters! Yet Munro shows the complex humanity of these characters, what led up to their actions and what effect those actions had on them and others.
Most of her stories are set in her native Canada, in different periods of the 20th century. But two stories here delve into different historical and geographical periods.
“The View from Castle Rock” is based on Munro’s research into her (Laidlaw) family background. It follows the Laidlaw immigrants on a ship to America. At the end, she writes: “Except for Walter’s journal, and the letters, the story is full of my invention.”
“Too Much Happiness” is about Sophia Kovalevsky, a Russian mathematical genius who wins a prestigious prize but can’t find employment until she moves to Sweden. She marries not for love but to escape her situation and the expectation that a woman cannot be a mathematician.
In many of her stories, Munro creates women characters who face barriers in a world where their options for work are limited to housewife, office worker, teacher or nurse. Yet she never falls into didacticism or tries to make political points. Her characters are complex, often with deep flaws.
Munro’s language is lovely, with apt turns of phrase. Sand dunes near a beach look playful: “A child’s construction, swollen out of scale.”
A character sees a kiss as “a bright blossom, its petals spreading inside her with tumultuous heat, like a menopausal flash.”
She also captures a character’s feelings: “It was the whole twist of consequence that dismayed her—it seemed fantastical, but dull. Also insulting, like some sort of joke or inept warning, trying to get its hooks into her.”
In her foreword, Jane Smiley aptly describes Munro’s genius: “She asserts that the world we all share is continually interesting, continually worthy of investigation, that we can, and should attempt to understand one another, that the payoff for that attempt at understanding might be something utterly unexpected.”
Finally, the Nobel Prize presentation speech describes reading one of Munro’s stories as “like watching a cat walk across a laid dinner table. A brief short story can often cover decades, summarizing a life, as she moves deftly between different periods.”
Gordon Houser is a writer and editor in North Newton.