"Family Furnishings" (Alfred A. Knopf), by Alice Munro
A year after Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature and was cited for her mastery of the modern short story, her publisher has collected 24 of her stories published over the past two decades.
"Family Furnishings" serves as a companion volume to an earlier compendium, "Selected Stories," and is as good a place as any to get acquainted with her distinctive voice: pitiless and tender, solemn and sly, elegant and clunky, and always, terrifyingly intelligent.
The stories are mostly written in a straightforward key, yet some are strange and experimental — parts of "My Mother's Dream," for instance, are narrated by an infant. They veer sharply backward and forward in time, the point of view shifting among a host of major and minor characters.
Has any writer ever paid such loving attention to the tedious, repetitive tasks of housework — historically, a feminine pursuit — or to the howling, almost inhuman demands of nursing infants? And yet Munro's work cannot be pigeonholed as simple scenes of domesticity.
Braided through her pointillistic accounts of family life, set largely in the farm towns of southwestern Ontario, are shocking episodes of adultery, incest, alcoholism and even murder, always recounted in her calm, matter-of-fact tone. Thus her work has been described as Canadian (a synonym for well-mannered?) gothic.
Since the 2012 publication of "Dear Life," which includes several semiautobiographical stories, and her winning the 2013 Nobel Prize at age 82, the facts of her life have become known. Born during the Depression to parents of modest means, she watched her mother struggle with early-onset Parkinson's disease and her father struggle to make a living, first as a fox farmer then in a foundry.
As a housewife and young mother in British Columbia, she scribbled stories during her children's naps and between loads of laundry, raising three daughters (a fourth died) before the marriage fell apart. Next a move back to Ontario and a happy second union with a former college acquaintance, a geographer whom she credited with helping her appreciate the flat terrain of her childhood.
Echoes of her life reverberate through the stories, and while the names and circumstances change, the themes remain constant: the value of hard work, the enduring influence of family, the corrosive effects of class, the explosive power of love, and the beauty and terror of nature. Not the least of her concerns, perhaps best expressed in the title story, is her ardent ambition to turn her life into art.