Small-town blues

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

Alice Munro <em>Chatto & Windus, 323pp, £14.99

Alice Munro defined the short story as "a world seen in a quick glancing light". But few writers encompass whole lives as swiftly and gracefully as Munro herself. Each of her tales, it has often (faintly apologetically) been observed, contains the depth and scope of a novel.

Munro's heroines are mainly women of a certain age and time: uncomplaining, dignified ladies who have probably "made love" only with their husbands in their entire, averagely happy, averagely eventful adult lives. Or at least this is how they are perceived in the cosy, middle-class worlds they inhabit. Some of the more modern, daring women opt for a different, independent lifestyle, but this is still considered "newfangled" or "wanton". Munro hasn't chosen glamorous or sexy subjects, but is drawn towards ordinary (it's funny how often this seems simply to mean domestic or female) experiences. Repressed desire, remembered passion, mature romance - Munro plays affectionately with the pathos and comedy embodied in the provincial matron.

"Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage" is a game in which two girls count the letters in a boy's name alongside this chant to see how far their relationship will go. Such a combination of chance and order perfectly corresponds to Munro's vision of existence. In this title story, the routine world of an unattractive, middle-aged housekeeper is overturned when fake love letters trick her into running after a penniless cad. The prank backfires on the young letter writer, who finds herself responsible for the fate of the unlikely couple.

This ungainly title covers the main preoccupations of the collection, except the most significant - death, which, as in Muriel Spark's short stories, is everywhere. Illness, decline and grief are accepted with the same pragmatic selflessness with which the women tolerate their men's boorishness, infidelities and indifference. Though Munro flirts with melodrama, the undertone of grim humour is unmistakable: an atheist's long-suffering widow finds comfort in the arms of an undertaker; the terminally ill wife of a sanctimonious social worker kisses a young thug, and a woman with Alzheimer's rekindles romance with an old flame.

In many of the stories, the heroine looks back at her younger self, creating a narrative tension between past and present, recollection and reality, misunderstandings and missed opportunities. Alternative lives can be imagined only in relation to the truth: a longtime flirtation between two quiet, reserved neighbours is defined by their overbearing spouses, one night of passion by many years of a happy but dull relationship. Munro is especially knowing on the contradictions and compromises of marriage, "the little hum of hate running along beside her love, nearly all the time".

Even the most minor characters - shop assistants, nurses, teachers - are shaped with the same compassionate economy. One much put-upon young woman is surrounded by a sour atmosphere "like old dishrags", while another's laugh is "sweet and rough like brown sugar". A plump, perfumed but unyielding middle-aged lady is compared to a lychee nut, and an old man to "a powerful, discouraged elderly horse". With the exception of Anne Tyler, no writer treats children and the aged with the same honesty and understanding.

Such subjects are undeniably but misleadingly sentimental. Munro's steely observation and discipline make the work of grittier, flashier writers look flabby. A hint of cruelty gives an edge to her realism, and distinguishes her from the emotional morass of fiction on similar themes. Like Helen Simpson's uncompromising stories about motherhood, these melancholy, autumnal tales of small-town Canadian life demonstrate the gentle power of the short story at its best. There is nothing ordinary about Alice Munro's writing.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And now the trouble really begins