Canadian short story writers, like the landscape in which they sprout, tend to be hardy: Mavis Gallant is 87, Margaret Atwood pushing 70, Alice Munro a stylish 78. The writer described by Cynthia Ozick as "our Chekhov" has so far managed 34 more years than the Russian master who purportedly passed her his pen. Yet while her prose has become more burnished, it still glints with the same preoccupations that gave
a name to her second collection in 1971: the lives of girls and women (only one story here has a man at its centre, and he is preoccupied with his wife's indefinable malaise).
Her women are not exactly modern and are only occasionally young, but they are bright, resourceful and capable of great feats, sometimes with dreadful consequences. And if I am writing as if they were real, that is because it is frequently difficult to remember that they are not.
Munro's skills are such that, in a single page of the superb title story of this new collection, she traces the entire history of women's struggle for equality, from mute resignation over unavoidable conception to the struggle for the vote, without losing control of her narrative. Sophia Kovalevsky is distracting herself from her sore throat by musing about her life and those of her fellow passengers on a slow train to Stockholm. It feels so natural you have to stop and squint to realise how cleverly it's been done.
The free indirect speech from a female character's point of view; the deceptive ease of narrative progression coupled to a glum comprehension that the progression of women's enfranchisement has had very little ease about it - this is typical Munro. She is no more sentimental about feminism than she is about death or love, coolly examining the price tag on every gain. More unusual is the step back beyond her lifetime, out of place (she usually writes about her native Huron County, Ontario) and across fictive boundaries. Sophia Kovalevsky (or Sofia Kovalevskaya) lived. She was a creature rarer than the dodo, a 19th-century female mathematician, the first woman to hold a chair at a European university. The actions are hers, even as Munro delicately purloins her thoughts and motivations. "You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does," she wrote in her 2006 collection The View from Castle Rock, part of which reimagined her Scottish ancestors' journey to Canada. "But not enough to swear on."
Oaths would certainly seem rash: with the exception of what Nabokov called the dash between two dates, does any life have a coherent truth? In the tellingly titled "Fiction", Joyce is unsettled to discover that someone from her past has used her in a short story. The tension any writer who believes in female emancipation must feel as they manipulate women's lives in the service of fiction crackles loudly here. Joyce has little respect for the genre, but she still hovers on the edge of an uneasy realisation that her life isn't coherent - isn't even wholly her own.
Munro can be brutal (Edie, who breaks up Joyce and Jon's marriage, is described with the stark brevity of a wanted poster: "Broad shoulders, thick bangs, tight ponytail, no possibility of a smile"), but she has a healthy respect for the power of her medium. In these stories, fiction saves lives. Imagination kills. Tales break bones. She may play chronology like a cello, bowing back and forth across the strings of a life according to her story's demands, but her characters live so convincingly precisely because her control, while tight, is never absolute: Munro never flattens out contradictions. Joyce mocks her. Edie pre-empts her. Nita, in "Free Radicals", argues that real life, not fiction, is the escape. Equality may be complicated but independence is permissible and sweet. By a story's end, these women hang in the imagination, whole but fading, like a just-finished melody.
There are dissonances, but these, too, are carefully calculated. In "Deep-Holes" a geologist's small son falls into a crater caused long ago by erosion. He survives, but over the years his personality also erodes. The story is told from his mother's point of view; only gradually does the horror become apparent. Actually, there's a great deal of horror in this book: the intruder on a sick woman's bereavement; the peculiar reading habits of a creepy old man; the sinister banality of deaths and marriage break-ups. There are several murders, inevitable when you are as interested in the emotional demands of survival as Munro is. Sophia, vanquished by those demands, breathes the words of the title on her deathbed. Certainly, no Munro character ever suffered from a surfeit of bliss. For her readers, however, Too Much Happiness is a promise, one she keeps.
Too Much Happiness
Chatto & Windus, 320pp, £17.99
Nina Caplan is arts editor of Time Out.