Alice Munro (2009) Too Much Happiness.

A collection of short stories that won the Man Booker International Prize, which is a surprise, because nobody publishes short stories now, but if you’re Alice Munro you can pretty well do what you like. A good story—whether it’s short or long—makes you think of other stories, perhaps something that happened in childhood. Bad stories are easy to spot. There are no bumps or mounds among the words, no mountains of childhood and you might just as well be reading the clock. ‘Child’s Play’ made me think of Big Pat. With it there would be the cockatoo screech of the Shirley twins’ voices, ‘there’s Big Pat’. They would run behind him and mimic his long legged stride and as Bit Pat hurried away they would hurry behind him. Sammy Shirley was the first to make the move, side-footing him on the ass to help him along, part of the game. I never joined in, but I laughed, standing on the corner of the street with the others, too scared, to be seen as different. Listen to Munro’s description of Verna. It’s almost perfect.

‘She was a good deal taller than I was and I don’t know how much older—two years, three years? She was skinny, indeed so narrowly built and with such a small head she made me think of a snake. Fine black hair lay flat on this head, and fell over her forehead. The skin of her face seemed dull to me as the flap of an old canvas tent, and her cheeks puffed out the way the flap of the tent puffed in the wind. Her eyes were always squinting.’

Munro is able to go through the ages of man (and woman) in great leaps in time, and this is no different. The narrator, a retired academic, (many of her narrators are academics or writers) is urged to contact a childhood friend dying of cancer, she hadn’t seen since she was a child. The reader is thrown at the end. Another hallmark of a Munro story.

If it was a matter of measuring distances in the mind and reading was some kind of long-jump of how far the reader can be thrown then ‘Distances’, the first story in the collection, had perhaps the strongest claim.  ‘Doree has to take three buses…’ is the opening line. The reader follows her journey and finds out that she is going to visit her husband. He has done something terrible, killed their three children and is locked away in an institution. Only an empathetic writer with great understanding would figure that even though he did this evil thing, Doree’s therapists understanding of what she has suffered or what she has lost are a pallid imitation of a flower that has never bloomed. Only her husband can understand and she is drawn to visit him to try and understand too. The denouement is like a car crash swerving away from the story and is typical Munro.

A Munro is of course one of the higher mountains in Scotland. It is an eyrie from which she picks out the best and worst of humanity. Some, like ‘Wenlock Edge’ seem to me a continuation of the same story, same characters from different short-story collections and seems to me the weakest in this volume. But a Munro is a grand thing and worth the watching. 


This review is spot on. So much meaning in all these stories. Could watch her for a long time. Sometimes the sense of place seems dislocating to me, but I think it's because I'm a city lass. A sense of watching the story but not being right in it. Have to do lots of work to imagine the locations she draws. Do you know what the devil I'm harping on about?


I can guess Vera. Part of the problem (for us) is that Munro refers to places like London and our mind flips to England, but her characters are referring to places like London Ontario. Doppelgannger and English sounding, place names throw us, as does her ability to place the country and times of another period in the modern day city. I guess this is nothing what you were thinking about, but I'll whitter on anyway.


It's exactly what sort of held me back, you're right. And descriptions of times I assumed were long gone. Country life I wasn't raised on, so it meant nothing. Or town dippings that didn't relate. But she's the goodest stuff and so deserved in every curve of her craft. 


Alice Munro is the best there is. Personally I never found the rural setting distancing... mind you, I grew up in a small town, not a city. But it is intriguing to think how a younger Munro would mirror our placeless world of smartphones and global corporations and social networks.

hey John the rural setting, or the metropolis, she has always got something worthwhile to say. Thanks Stan, I certainly take a look later. I remember that story well (my mum, like so many others had Alzheimer's).