Runaway is a collection of short stories by the Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro.
When I spied this book at the library I was only too eager to pick it up. I love short stories. Maybe I have a short attention span, or I am a true Gemini and I like variety. So I always chose short story collection over novels. I was glad I did.
“It is a book of extraordinary stories about love and its infinite betrayals and surprises” claims the back cover of the book. I must agree with that whole-heartedly.
The first story in the collection, is called ‘Runaway.’ It is really about a runaway goat, which gets killed in the end. But it is also about the heroine who has runaway from all things familiar, to make a runaway marriage with a man who is nothing like what she imagined him to be. Her second attempt at running away from him also does not materialize. The story ends with a veiled threat that she could end up like the kid, dead.
Then there are three stories about the same person Juliet told over the years. In the first story, she is young and moves in to live with a man whom she meets on a train journey. The second story tells of her visit to her parents’ home with her baby and how her unmarried status has been the cause of much shame to them. The third story is about Juliet’s daughter now an adult, who has runaway from home to lead a conventional and traditional life and Juliet waits, eagerly at first and then without much hope, for her return.
The story ‘Passion’ is about a young girl who has everything going for her with her fiancé’s family but spoils it by a foolish outing with his stepbrother.
‘Trespasses,’ deals with a young girl who has no way knowing if she was adopted or not. The last story ‘Powers,’ which is also, the longest, deals with a woman who has the gift of clairvoyance and what happens or does not happen to her, told from the viewpoint of her friend.
The story that I like the best was ‘Tricks.’ It stayed with me even after I had read the whole book. It is about a girl who tries to rise above her poor circumstances by going to watch Shakespeare’s plays every year. There she makes a strange friend, a foreigner and a clock mender. They agree to meet a year later to consummate their love. But fate plays a trick on her. She meets his belligerent twin that day and jumps to conclusions.
The girl finds out the truth, many years later. But that lamentable day had changed her life forever. Munro’s prose is classic as she paints a word-perfect picture of the heroine’s thoughts when she discovers how she had erred. “Shakespeare should have prepared her. Twins are often the reason for mix-ups and disasters in Shakespeare. A means to an end, those tricks are supposed to be. And in the end the mysteries are solved, the pranks are forgiven, true love or something like it is rekindled, and those who were fooled have the good grace not to complain.”
Munro’s stories are not short stories in the true sense of the word. They are more like long stories, sometimes even 65 pages long. Many people might find it humdrum and dull and more like a rambling documentation of people who live mediocre lives.
All the stories are somber and a little dreary. The stories are set solely in Munro homeland, Canada and take place in small towns. Munro’s characters are not glossy or magnificent or from the upper echelons of society. There are definitely no bureaucrats or pop stars or the high rich.
Her characters are stoic people, housewives, students, teachers, mothers, children and men and women who run stables, or grow fruits and make jam and butter. These are people, who strive to make ends meet or make relationships work. These are people whom we can relate to, even though we live in a different country far far away from Munro’s Canada.
Nothing is larger than life in her stories. The seemingly effortless narration is mostly from a woman’s viewpoint. The heroines recollect things that happened many years ago, with mature intelligence and sometime regret. Time is the best healer. But what is passed is passed, and they have no way of changing it. The cruelest words in the English are supposed to be, “If only.” Munro’s tales bear testimony to that.
Her compositions are unpretentious. But you cannot deny that they are masterful.
And how do you end the review of a Nobel Prize winners work?
I only have these clichéd words:
You can love or hate Munro’s stories. But you cannot ignore them.