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Complications of Love 

Munro's in usual top form in new collection

Alice Munro's magic is in the details, and in this, her 10th collection of stories, she proves to be the adept sorceress. In a style that relishes examining the small irrelevancies of life, Munro quells reader expectation, delivering instead that little bit of truth in one's life that reveals connections both huge and important, even when they're not seen or acknowledged. These nine masterfully crafted stories examine smalltown life or smalltown people in or outside of Munro's native Ontario, and explore ideas like self-deception and our inability to see things through others' eyes. Each story develops by way of careful, unrushed narrative, weaving together past and present, memory and experience. Munro's stories revolve around girls and women, wives and daughters, navigating through the dangerous territories of old-maid-hood, the complications of marriage, and the life-altering experiences of illness and death.

Often, Munro's subject is life's chanciness and complexity. "Floating Bridge," a stunning story of self-discovery, is revealed to us through the lens of a life-threatening disease. Jinny Lockyer finds herself claustrophobic and vulnerable, isolated by her husband's inconsistent devotion and defined by her cancer. Thanks to a chance meeting with a young man, she undertakes a romantic journey of self-discovery through the Borneo Swamp. Through Munro's deftness of language and poetic precision, Jinny is offered a glimpse of the possibilities of her life, uncovered in the innocence of a simple kiss.

Munro frequently takes measure of her characters' hidden longings. The protagonist of the title story, Johanna Parry, is a housekeeper with a hidden longing for a new life and love. Johanna "could see what needed to be done, and how, and she could round up and supervise people to do it, but she could never charm or entice. It was the rare person who took to her, and she'd been aware of that for some time." She is the indelible outsider and the victim of a teenage prank, but the outcome, although surprising, remains inevitable. In the end, Johanna is triumphant in an astonishing reversal of fortune.

The style of an Alice Munro story is to creep up on you, take unpredictable turns, but with such subtlety that one must sit still and let the final lines sink in. The looseness of her style could be interpreted as "messy," and on this point, Munro may be an acquired taste. But it's the accumulation of these seemingly unrelated intricacies that demands our attention. She knows the rules and perceptions of the genre and delights in turning them back on you. Munro's prose is both light and deep. One finds that what's most important in her stories isn't what happens, but the way it happens. A large part of her astonishing skill is the compression she seems capable of crafting. Often in a single story, a character will move through life, marry, have affairs, and divorce, and yet do so in very few words.

In a chance meeting with her childhood sweetheart, Mike McCallum, the narrator of "Nettles," now middle-aged and divorced, finds herself overcome with the nostalgia of her childhood romance. The reader's expectation, of course, is that this romance will once again be rekindled. What follows is a beautifully rendered, and yes, suspenseful, fusion of memory and experience, bridging past and present with the passing of each scene. However, this meeting is bittersweet, as the narrator discovers that this love "was not usable" and "knew its place." She now understands that "Not risking a thing" means, "yet staying alive as a sweet trickle, an underground resource. With the weight of this new stillness on it, this seal."

Many of Munro's stories deal directly with self-deception. In "Queenie," Munro relates the experiences of a young girl, Chrissy, and her memories of her relationship with her wayward stepsister, Queenie, who marries and runs away with their much older neighbor Mr. Vorguilla at the age of 18. Before visiting her sister and Mr. Vorguilla for the first time in Toronto, Chrissy imagines she and Queenie living together once again as they had before. But what transpires there leads Chrissy to the realization that these couples -- her father and stepmother, Mr. And Mrs. Vorguilla, Queenie and Mr. Vorguilla -- "each of them, however disjointed, had now or in memory a private burrow with its own heat and disturbance, from which [she] was cut off."

One of the most gifted practitioners of the short story today, Alice Munro is a writer whose talents lie in her ability to present the texture of everyday life with both compassion and unyielding precision. The world we glimpse in Munro's collection is a complex one, a world in which she reveals the surface of life and the depth of experience, exhibiting a style and grace that her followers have come to love and respect.<

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