Its dreadful title is just about the only thing wrong with this stunning tenth collection from Canada’s matchless chronicler of women’s external fates, inner lives, and painful journeys toward and away from self-understanding (The Love of a Good Woman, 1998, etc.).
Munro’s nine tales are set mostly in her native Ontario or in western Canada (often Vancouver island), and realized with steely precise statement and in meticulously deployed specific local detail. Their scrupulously seen protagonists include a young wife who’ll keep forever the clandestine glimpse of “another sort of life she could have had,” caught during her one brief extramarital adventure (“What is Remembered”); a cancer victim impulsively seizing a moment of romantic escape from her distracted husband’s inconsistent devotion (“Floating bridge”); and a woman writer who eventually realizes (in “Family Furnishings”) how she has used the image of her “fervent and dashing,” simultaneously ridiculous and stoical, unmarried aunt to avoid confronting her own fears and failings. The fusion of memory with present experience is accomplished with impressive subtlety in “Queenie” (previously published by itself in chapbook form), the tale of a rootless girl who creates a consoling fantasy about her “wild” stepsister’s seemingly comfortable marriage, and also in “Comfort,” a piece that artfully discloses the strategies by which a submissive faculty wife has adjusted to her volatile husband’s scorn for “sentimentality.” We work our way slowly into these multileveled stories, gradually learning how the minutiae of their characters’ past experiences and unlived dreams have shaped such developments as a lonely housekeeper’s gritty victory over a heartless prank that might have destroyed her (in the fine title story), or a faithless husband’s chastened adaptation to the happiness his wife finds in a nursing home (“The Bear Came Over the Mountain”). Or, in the unforgettable “Nettles,” a middle-aged woman’s bittersweet chance meeting with the man who was the love of her childhood—a “Love [she now knows] that was not usable, that knew its place.”
Rich, mature, authoritative stories veined with respectful attention to the complexity and singularity of vagrant, cluttered and compromised lives.