Open Secrets (Magill Book Reviews)
In these eight stories, Canadian author Alice Munro revisits the physical and emotional landscapes that have become closely identified with her work. Nearly all of these stories take place in southeastern Ontario, near Lake Huron. Her characters are ordinary people with uncertain lives, connected by a common setting.
The real tour de force of this collection is “The Albanian Virgin,” which spans some forty years and only briefly involves Ontario. The chief figure is Canadian-born Charlotte, who is kidnapped in the 1920’s by a primitive Albanian tribe, the Ghegs, but returns to tell her story. A parallel figure is Claire, owner of a bookstore in 1960’s Victoria, British Colombia. The storyline exists on three levels—Charlotte’s life as a captive of the Ghegs, Charlotte’s story told years later to Claire in Victoria, and Claire’s own confused tale of marital unhappiness and escape.
In other selections, a self-reliant farm woman is convinced by her friends to submit to a traditional marriage, although she is obviously reluctant. Ironically, she flourishes, but a flirtatious friend, who has eagerly married in hope of “a real life,” withers in her joyless union. Another tale describes survival in the nineteenth century Canadian bush, where brutality festers beneath the surface of daily life. The final story examines child abuse, the deception of appearances, and violence that feeds upon itself.
Most of these stories carry within them a glimmer of evil submerged in the ordinary. Although Munro is not a writer of horror fiction in the usual sense, though her stories ring absolutely true, the darkness within them is enough to chill the bones.
Sources for Further Study
Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 30, 1994, p. 2.
The Nation. CCLIX, November 28, 1994, p. 665.
The New York Review of Books. XLI, December 22, 1994, p. 59.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, September 11, 1994, p. 1.
Newsweek. CXXIV, September 26, 1994, p. 63.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, August 1, 1994, p. 72.
Time. CXLIV, October 3, 1994, p. 82.
The Times Literary Supplement. October 14, 1994, p. 24.
The Wall Street Journal. September 9, 1994, p. A12.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, September 18, 1994, p. 2.
Open Secrets (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
In her eighth book, Canadian author Alice Munro revisits the physical and emotional landscapes that have become closely identified with her work. Nearly all these stories take place in southeastern Ontario, in or near the small town of Carstairs or its larger neighbor Walley, a port on Lake Huron. Her characters are ordinary people with uncertain lives, their stories connected by a common setting and spanning a period from the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth century.
Munro’s early work consists primarily of first-person, coming-of-age stories, well crafted and powerful. In later work she has switched to a more traditional omniscient voice, except for the multiple point of view found here in “A Wilderness Station,” which is written in epistolary form. Her writing has become denser, layered, employing more sophisticated techniques. Events frequently appear out of chronological order as Munro shifts seamlessly between past and present. She has indicated that such shifts are deliberate: “I want to write the story that will zero in and give you intense, but not connected, moments of experience. I guess that’s the way I see life.”
The real tour de force of this collection is “The Albanian Virgin,” a story that covers some forty years and only briefly involves Ontario, alternating mostly between Albania and British Columbia. The chief figure is Canadian-born Charlotte, who is kidnapped in the 1920’s by a primitive Albanian tribe, the Ghegs, but returns to tell her story. A parallel figure is Claire, owner of a bookstore in 1960’s Victoria. The story line exists on three levels—Charlotte’s life as a captive of the Ghegs, Charlotte’s story told years later to Claire in Victoria, and Claire’s own confused tale of marital unhappiness and escape.
Charlotte (Lottar) undergoes a transformation from young heiress to village slave to emancipated “virgin”—a state in which she forswears her female role, dresses as a man, and is thus permitted a limited freedom rather than being sold into a Muslim marriage by the villagers. This freedom is so precious to her that she willingly accepts the filth and poverty of her living conditions as a mountain sheepherder and forgets her previous life. Claire, her narrative double, is similarly transformed from young wife to curious lover to single businesswoman. Munro handles the tangled plot lines with consummate skill, and the story ends with a remarkable one-sentence denouement.
Munro’s command of narrative is evident from the first sentence of “Spaceships Have Landed,” which plunges directly into a murky and complex world: “On the night of Eunie Morgan’s disappearance, Rhea was sitting in the bootlegger’s house at Carstairs—Monk’s—a bare, narrow wooden house, soiled halfway up the walls by the periodic flooding of the river.” A class system is at work in this world and is determined by wealth, occupation, and to some degree family. “Good” families are those with money. The lower classes are those who farm, raise animals, or work with their hands, and a hierarchy exists even within this group. Store clerks are superior to waitresses, who are in turn superior to the rough workers from the glove factory.
Eunie Morgan is one of these workers: “Drab and mannish in her slacks and bandannas, with . . . an ungainly walk—she had gone right from being a child to being a character.” A character indeed, Eunie always keeps the biggest piece of bread for herself, leaves school at fifteen to get a job, rides a bicycle when it is not stylish to do so, and announces that she has been captured by space aliens. The true focus of this story, however, is not on Eunie but on Rhea, who similarly finds herself in unfamiliar territory.
Munro has clearly mastered the art of holding back. What is on the surface of these stories is impressive and usually disquieting, yet one is left with the uneasy feeling that something has been overlooked. The author carefully plants information, only a phrase or two, which will take on new and crucial significance at a second reading. Munro has suggested that this trait of withholding information “may be particularly Canadian—the less you reveal, the more highly thought of you are.” In this sense her stories are unpredictable,...
(The entire section is 1758 words.)