I don’t know where to start with this book so I’m just going to dive in. Alice Munro is a very very good writer, the sort of talent who makes me think of Anne Rice’s quip that Renoir sold his soul: it doesn’t figure that a person can craft such luminously wonderful art without divine or diabolical help!
One of the things she does magnificently is write about children from their perspective in a way that is as delightful and frustrating and surprising as actually being with children. Once you’ve marvelled at this feat for a while you realise she is somehow doing the same thing with everyone, letting them speak and think and astonish and reveal, as if they live behind the scenes.
She is so gentle though, so respectful. She doesn’t make that error that Katherine Mansfield stamped on in DH Lawrence of invading bodies and psyches as if we could ever understand others by magical omniscience rather than by empathy. The boys in the title story keep their fierce dignity, their sacred privacy. Even when Munro describes horrible traumatic episodes, she manages, with great sensitivity and care, to maintain a distance that keeps the reader safe from visceral response. You might want to call that shying away, but personally I’m kneeling in gratitude when an author can achieve this balance. I want to hear about trauma without being triggered where possible.
Loving Munro is also easy because her ethics of care and compassion for others are embodied by these stories, for example by Enid, the protagonist of the title story. Yet Munro refuses to paint an icon for worship: Enid can live as she does only because of her enabling circumstances, she experiences poisoned fantasies, and her goodwill is not unconditional. The same is true for other characters: each person in the book is carefully drawn as an individual shaped by histories, enmeshed in social structures that influence, constrain, oppress, enable, direct, oppose and support them in interconnected ways. They are at least partly responsible for their fortunes and failings, but Munro never victim-blames or hero-worships.
There are vile abusers and detestable bigots. These are villains that propel drama. Mrs Gorrie is a particularly realistic monster, but Munro skilfully uses her to unpick attitudes to disability, poverty and gender roles that are surprisingly mainstream. Sometimes no villain is required; misunderstandings and failures of empathy, the stuff of all our lives, are sufficient to push characters far enough out of their comfort zones to experience transcendence and hand it on to us. The gift Munro has is of keeping each life she fashions open, stretching past the fringes of her telling. There is no answer given, no resolution is final. We go on living.