CANADIAN WRITER Alice Munro's fine and intelligent stories are like Edward Hopper paintings, lit with a relentless clarity, and richly illuminating the perplexities of human connections, their possibilities and pain. This new collection of 11 stories includes both contemporary tales portraying the lives of middle-aged women recovering from love affairs, and stories of family history and family relationships that reach into the past.
"Chaddeleys and Flemings," for example, is a comparison of maiden aunts on each side of a family, capturing both the impressions of childhood and the adult point of view. Munro's narrator vividly recreates a summer-long visit of her ample and lively maternal aunts and a trip to her father's shy, old-fashioned sisters, unused to company. A later visit by one of the maternal aunts highlights the weakness in her marriage, and a still later return to the paternal aunts' home, searching for the grave marker of a hermit who died on the property, prompts this observation: "If I had been younger, I would have figured out a story. I would have insisted on Mr. Black's being in love with one of my aunts . . . Now I no longer believe that people's secrets are defined and communicable, or their feelings full- blown and easy to recognize. . . Now, I can only say, my father's sisters scrubbed the floor with lye, they stooked the oats and milked the cows by hand. They must have taken a quilt to the barn for the hermit to die on, they must have let water dribble from a tin cup into his afflicted mouth. That was their life."
This reliance on realism, on straightforward, unsentimental narrative, and on lucid, penetrating description marks much of Munro's work, one as rich in psychological insight as that of more emotional writers. The atmosphere she creates is almost tangible, the characterizations clear and full and remarkably varied. In "The Turkey Season" we see the sexual undercurrents among an array of colorful workers in a small turkey-processing factory through the eyes of a 14-year-old girl who gets herself hired for the Christmas season to prove to herself she can do manual work. There she is fascinated by the goings-on of the adults, who include the competent, impenetrable manager she develops a crush on, the owner's genteel sister, and two middle- aged women turkey gutters with strong opinions on every subject, especially the people around them.
"The Turkey Season," filled with tough good humor, touching vulnerability, and an almost magical wonder, touches only indirectly on a theme common to the other stories in this collection: the pain of attachments to other people, whether family, friends, or lovers. In several stories middle-aged women try to come to terms with a difficult or dissolved love affair. In "Dulse," a woman on vacation ponders the deep need for love that led her to "the abdication of all pride and sense," as she talks to several men who each, in his way, has come to an accommodation with life. In "Bardon Bus," the narrator tries to recover from what she knew would be a short-term affair. In "Labor Day Dinner," the lovers, still together, struggle with a similar problem, her increasing need as he draws away, perceiving only her weakness.
These stories are painful but direct, without self-pity, made bearable by irony, by the careful and brave convalescence of the women, and by the sympathy they evoke. Their view of love is expressed by the narrator of "Hard-Luck Stores," who realizes that the man she loves is in love with another woman: " 'why should I be surprised? Isn't this just what you always hear? How love isn't rational, or in one's best interests, it doesn't have anything to do with normal preferences?' " And in "Labor Day Dinner" the heroine feels "that love is not kind or honest and does not contribute to happiness in any reliable way."
What Munro says of love between women and men is as true of any relationship in the book. The narrator in "The Moons of Jupiter," as she is realizing her love for her dying father, must also suffer hurt when her daughter won't see her. In "Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd," 80-year-old Mrs. Cross "was not able to say a word, such a feeling of grief, and shock, and helplessness rose in her heart," when the stroke victim she has been trying to help responds with violent anger towards her. And the cloistered paternal aunts in "Chaddeleys and Flemings" express through their fearful and uncomfortable silence even in the presence of family, an extreme, but basic part of the relationships evoked in these stories: "What was felt in that room was the pain of human contact. . . . The fascinating pain; the humiliating necessity."
If such observations are hard to accept, they are also honest, and in Munro's hands not discouraging. Her people do cope somehow, they rebuild. The paternal aunts, for all their isolation, send a Christmas card to their niece every year; they "go out and buy the card, go to the Post Office, buy the stamp. It was an act of faith." Mrs. Cross is saved from her moment of grief by the friendship of a woman she's known since kindergarten, but had nothing in common with for 75 years. The narrator of "Bardon Bus" settles for a moment of peace at a bakery: "What I need is . . . a deliberate sort of rest, with new definitions of luck . . . You're lucky to be . . . drinking coffee, with people coming and going, eating and drinking, buying cakes. . . ." With irony, or patience, or common sense, or the passage of time, Munro's characters survive the unpredictability of love. CAPTION: Picture, Alice Munro; Copyright (c) by Paul Orenstein