Alice Munro's detailed portraits of female constraint make her a truly great short-story writer

Rachel Cusk explores gender and family in Alice Munro's <em>Runway.</em>

Alice Munro.
Alice Munro's books. Photograph: Jonathan Nacktrand / AFP / Getty Images.

Runaway
Alice Munro
Chatto & Windus, 352pp, £15.99

There are a few writers with whom a whole tranche of literate, liberal-minded women can be said to have grown up; writers who have barely seemed to develop but instead have worked from the start at a high level of artistic self- realisation, made possible by their clear and primary interest in the female experience of being. Alice Munro is one and her fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood is another. Fiction seems to issue from such writers in a constant stream that is only rarely worked up into a bigger literary enterprise. This is truer of no one than Munro, whose lack of pretension is equal only to the elemental steadiness of her art.

The chief characteristics of Munro's art, like that of all great short-story writers, are simplicity and realism, though she is perhaps too partial to human beings to satisfy the most stringent tastes. Nor does she succeed entirely in overcoming the faintly anomalous character of her Canadian settings, though in this regard the solution may be worse than the problem. What really distinguish her writing are her detailed portraits of female constraint: she is unmatched as an artist of the highly nuanced private lives of modern women.

As though to secure for herself this ground - of feminism and its aftermath - more than half the stories in Runaway are set or have their genesis in the 1960s. The collection centres around three narratives concerning a woman called Juliet, whom we meet first as a young graduate in 1965, then as a new mother, and last as a woman in her forties and fifties. Her story is given to us with a necessary degree of hindsight, for over the years her position in history changes and changes again: she is by turns the beneficiary of social change and the victim of its discontinuity, at one moment a pioneer and at the next an experiment.

The title of the first of these stories is "Chance"; it concerns a chance meeting that alters the course of Juliet's life, but the word also refers to the vanquished concept of predictability and the new immanence of danger and chaos in the world of an independent, educated 20-year-old. On a train journey to the girls' school where she has been offered a job teaching classics, she is drawn into a fleeting, dramatic intimacy with a man which, out of a determination caused partly by fear and partly by shame, she forces into permanence.

We next meet her as the ebullient mother of a baby girl, whom she takes to Toronto to visit her parents. Juliet and Eric, the man on the train, live together but are not married. Juliet believes that her parents are liberal and open-minded, but they appear palpably disturbed at her unwed state. What seemed to be a type of conformity - the instinctive clinging to a relationship with a man, amid Juliet's insecurity about her future as an academic - is in fact a revolutionary act that has cast her out.

That which is loved and familiar (home, the past) being tainted, Juliet's next phase of life is fiercely professional. She finds success as a TV presenter and her relationship with Eric ends. Penelope, her daughter, is now the age Juliet was when she made that fateful journey. Juliet derives nearly all her succour from Penelope, for which she pays heavily when Penelope joins a cult and severs all contact with her mother. Years later, living alone, her working life over, Juliet meets someone who tells her that Penelope has had five children.

What is striking about these stories, as in other works by Munro, is her understanding of the long process of moral failure, her rendering of it as part of the decay of human relations. For Munro's women, the need to live for oneself is often the catalyst for this decay, for isolation, catastrophe and pain; yet the need itself arises out of a thirst for self-knowledge and a sense that life has become enveloped in dishonesty. In "Trespasses", this moral fog is apprehended from a distance by a ten-year-old girl who becomes convinced that she is not really the child of her unhappy, argumentative parents, but was adopted. "This notion was unsettling, but it had a distant charm."

The family has moved to a new town, where the insinuating woman who works at the local hotel forces Lauren, the girl, into a strange intimacy. She believes that Lauren is her daughter, and not without reason: it transpires that Lauren's parents adopted the woman's baby before Lauren was born and that, unknown to the woman, the baby subsequently died. In "Tricks", a young woman is so victimised by her unpleasant invalid sister that she cannot believe in the possibility of love, only fate and superstition. Late in life she discovers that she has been mistaken:

but she'll come round to being grateful for the discovery of it. That, at least - the discovery which leaves everything whole, right up to the moment of frivolous intervention. Leaves you outraged, but warmed from a distance, clear of shame.

Runaway is full of the kind of writing for which Munro is rightly admired - the scene in which the church minister with his "unfazed smile" visits Juliet's ailing mother; the grotesquely comic scattering of a dead baby's ashes; the awful exchange between two sisters when one of them returns from an illicit evening out.

"I'm sorry I missed the early train," Robin said.
"I've had my supper. I had stroganoff."
"So that's what I'm smelling."
"And I had a glass of wine."
"I can smell that too."
"I think I'll go right up to bed."
"I think you'd better."

No less here than in the past, and in this she is more or less unrivalled, she offers readers a deep, rich, sustained experience of recognition: a great, bitter-sweet draught of life.

Rachel Cusk's The Lucky Ones will be published in paperback in July (Perennial)