Readers still dazzled by Alice Munro’s Selected Stories (1996)—an abundant harvest of fictions from her previous eight collections—will find these eight new stories a delightful bonus. The title story, the longest and most elaborate, begins in Wally, Ontario, a familiar Munro location, with three boys finding the body of the town’s optometrist in his car submerged in the river. Although one might expect the plot immediately to focus on the mystery of the drowned man, Munro is in absolutely no hurry to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. She follows the three boys into their individual homes and leisurely explores their ordinary secrets. However, the drowned man is one secret they are in no hurry to divulge; even when they go to the police station, at the last minute they make a joke and run away without telling. Finally, almost incidentally, one of the boys tells a parent, who calls the authorities. The body is retrieved from the river, and the case is ruled an accident or suicide.
At the beginning of the next section of the story, Munro leaves the body and the boys altogether and focuses on a cranky dying woman, Mrs. Quinn, cared for by a lonely home nurse named Enid. Then, just as the reader becomes involved in the empty life of Enid, having given up on the story of the drowned optometrist, Mrs. Quinn tells Enid that Rupert, her husband, killed the optometrist when he saw him trying to fondle her. However, because Mrs. Quinn is neurotic and quite ill, Enid is not sure that she is telling the truth. When Mrs. Quinn dies, Enid decides she must tell Rupert, for whom she has feelings, the story she has heard and urge him to give himself up. The way she decides to do this, however, creates the open-ended ambiguity of the story: She asks him to row her out on the river, where she will tell him what she knows, also informing him that she cannot swim. At the last minute, she changes her mind, but cannot get out of the situation. The story ends just before they leave the shore, so the reader does not know whether she confronts him or not, and if she does, whether he pushes her in the river or rows them both back to the shore.
“The Love of a Good Woman” begins like a novel, but instead of continuing to broaden out as it introduces new characters and seemingly new stories, it tightens up, slowly connecting what at first seemed disparate and unrelated. It is a classic example of Munro’s characteristic technique of creating a world that has all the illusion of external reality while all the time pulling the reader deeper into what becomes a hallucinatory inner world of mystery, secrecy, and deception. Unlike a novel, which would be bound to develop some sort of satisfying closure, Munro’s story reaches a moral impasse, an ambiguous open end in which the reader suddenly realizes that instead of living in the world of apparent reality, he or she has been whirled, as if by a centrifugal force, to an almost unbearable central point of intensity.
Munro also returns to other favorite themes: infidelity, separation, divorce. “The Children Stay,” the third- prize winner in the 1998 O. Henry Awards competition seems, on the one hand, a conventional eternal triangle story, with the central female character leaving her husband and family for another man. However, Munro complicates this predictable story line by making the woman an amateur actress and the man she runs away with the director of a local theater company’s production of the play Eurydice. Munro has said that the story is about the way people make choices and how those choices are not usually about the things people think they are. The story explores the young woman’s irrational decision to leave a husband and family for whom she cares, not for love or sex but for some romantic and compulsive obsession that she cannot quite control. Classical allusions to Orpheus, whose seductive music is not to be resisted, underlie the story’s structure. “The Children Stay” is a variation of the romance story, practiced so well by Edna O’Brien, in which a woman cannot resist following a romantic image, even as she knows that it bears little relationship to reality.
“Jakarta” also centers on this theme. Focusing on two couples during the 1960’s, when wife-swapping and open marriages were in fashion, the story ponders the disappearance of one of the husbands, Cottar, on a trip to Jakarta. However, thirty years later, when the other husband, Kent, along with his new wife, goes to visit the wife of the missing man, they both articulate their suspicion that Cottar ran away with Kath, Kent’s first wife. Like “The Children Stay,” the story is about how people try to find a way to snap themselves apart from a life decision to which they refuse to reconcile themselves. However, as is typical with Munro, this story never suggests that either path taken...