The detail kills

The Love of a Good Woman

Alice Munro <em>Chatto & Windus, 340pp, £14.99</em>

Alice Munro has been compared to Tolstoy and Chekhov, called a master of realism, documenter of small-town Canada's quaintnesses and sadnesses, unsentimental compiler of domestic detail. And what detail! The very first thing in her new short story collection, The Love of a Good Woman, before place is established or characters named, is a description of a box of optometry instruments: "The ophthalmoscope could make you think of a snowman . . . A large disk, with a smaller disk on top. In the large disk a hole to look through, as the various lenses are moved." People and places receive no less scrutiny: "Rosemary was wearing a long dark-blue dress with gold and orange moons on it and had her hair freshly dyed, very black, piled up in a toppling bird's nest on top of her head."

In each story a murder, an affair or a secret is revealed through accumulated layers of detail. Seemingly harmless descriptions (like this image of the Peregrine River) suggest dark possibilities: "With . . . the pale sunlight on its surface, the water looked like butterscotch pudding on the boil. But if you fell into it, it would freeze your blood and fling you out into the lake, if it didn't brain you against the buttresses first." Other details - a glimpse of a covered washbasin, a newspaper cutting, a game of spot-the-alien - trigger darker revelations. A childhood friend is a murderer. A parent moonlights as an abortionist. A daughter doesn't love her mother. Characters find themselves grappling with secrets that are terrible yet not unfamiliar, the stuff of small-town gossip.

So Munro is a fin-de-siecle realist, a gossip with a dark twist - well, that's one popular way of looking at her stories. But there are many good slice-of-life writers out there; and this isn't enough to explain why Munro is anthologised, collected, offered up in classrooms as a master of the short story. So what's the big deal about Alice Munro?

Perhaps the answer is, after all, in the details. Part of the experience of reading the eight stories here is to be overwhelmed by detail. There's so much information about place and character and situation and past and future lives that it's easy to become lost. The title story - really a novella at 78 pages, and the best in the collection - turns on the death of an optometrist. It circles the optometrist, skipping backwards and forwards in time and tracking multiple characters. The protagonist - the "good woman" of the title - isn't introduced until page 31, and for a long time it's impossible to know who's telling the truth about the death, or even what the story is about. In "The Children Stay" a mother of two small children decides to leave her husband for the director of an amateur production of Eurydice in which she's acting. But the end of the story includes details about the children as adults 30 years on, which suddenly raises the possibility that the story is more about the children (who hardly feature) than the mother. In many of the stories, the secret tragedy happens at the periphery, and is merely observed by the protagonist. In "Cortes Island" an invalid neighbour shows a newly wed wife a newspaper cutting about a fire that killed (or murdered) his wife's first husband - a minor detail but one which will impact on the young woman's future. So reading these stories isn't so much like listening in on small-town gossip as finding yourself abandoned and mapless in an unknown town.

This sense of displacement is uncomfortable - you could end up anywhere - but it's also what makes Munro's fiction so clever. Hers are more than slice-of-life stories, concerned not only with depicting life, but with the possible paths a life (and a story) can take. In story after story these possibilities are brought into focus and questioned with ophthalmological scrutiny. What are the consequences of love? What is the price of nostalgia? What are the boundaries of a life? How do you tell a story? Which stories should you never tell? Like the teller of medieval morality tales, Munro leads readers along a winding path to those moments when the moral decisions that determine the shape of a life are made.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers