Not everyone’s had the chance to enjoy the work of our country’s best writer, who this week became the first Canadian (and just the 13th woman) to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the world’s most prestigious award for writing. Here is a humble primer: the five stories you need to read to understand Alice Munro.
1 of 5
The Turkey Season (from 1982’s The Moons of Jupiter): The Turkey Season offers, in microcosm, so many of the themes that define Munro’s career. There’s the unsettled young narrator – a 14-year-old who works at the “Turkey Barn,” where she guts the dead animals – and piles of discomfiting sexual tension. There’s also the graphic and macabre descriptions of various physical things, including the breaking down of those very turkeys. But there’s a glimmer of the black humour that runs through Munro’s work, too, as in the moment when the Turkey Barn foreman, after removing a turkey’s testicles, “which were like a pair of white grapes,” makes a fashion suggestion: “Nice pair of earrings,” Herb said.
2 of 5
Meneseteung (from 1990’s Friend of My Youth): In Meneseteung, a woman named Almeda finds herself without a family: “The third summer that we lived here, my brother and sister were taken ill…and died within a few days of each other. My dear mother did not regain her spirits…and after another three years she died.” The story charts her life and her efforts to establish identity outside the confines predetermined for her by the 19th-century society in which she lives. It’s narratively ambitious and formally sophisticated, incorporating snippets of poetry and newspaper clippings. A perfect example of what people mean when they say Munro’s stories read like novels.
3 of 5
The Love of a Good Woman (from 1998’s The Love of a Good Woman): The Love of a Good Womanis a quite long short story set in the fifties, as rich in content and character as a novel, pivoting on the discovery of a drowned car and the body within it. The structure of the story, with shifting points of view, is comparable, weirdly, to a Seinfeld episode, where seemingly disparate narratives all eventually reveal themselves to be interconnected. The story is larded with portent and ambiguity; characters carry dark secrets. The meaning of the story’s final, eerie scene is as compelling and submerged as the body in the car.
4 of 5
Chaddeleys and Flemings (from 1982’s Moons of Jupiter): Munro is not overtly political; she is far too great a writer to ever be didactic or prescriptive. Yet Chaddeleys and Flemings throbs with class and gender concerns like a raw nerve. In the first half of this two-part story, the main character meets, as a child, a gaggle of older women – cousins – moving riotously through life, unmarried. They are yarn-tellers, antic-havers. When the narrator, years later, and her husband re-meet Cousin Iris, the younger woman has to reckon with her new perception of the older woman, and the degree to which it is a betrayal of her own self. The last paragraph of Part 1 is trademark Munro prose: haunting, glimmering, indelible.
5 of 5
The Lives of Girls and Women (from 1971’s The Lives of Girls and Women): No round-up would be complete without a Jubilee story, set in the small Ontario town in which many semi-autobiographical Munro stories take place. The Lives of Girls and Women combines the author’s acute, fevered perception of the physical body and all its grotesqueries with the stirrings of desire. The quick, cruel joys of adolescence, the tenuousness of faith, the confusion of lust, the nature of victimhood – grand themes are condensed into startling familiarity, shot through with dark wit. It’s Judy Blume meets Chekhov, but better.