I was going to start this review by equating Munro’s stories with a house. There are big, lofty spaces and hidden trap doors, silent rooms where all you hear is the tick-tock of the clock, and dark mouldy cellars. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Munro has used the exact same comparison herself. In the introduction to her selected short stories from 1996 she apparently wrote:
“[The experience of reading isn't like having] a road to follow . . . it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while . . . discovering how the rooms and corridors relate to each other. The view is different from every window”, and the story itself becomes a form of “enclosed space”, one that no matter how it’s furnished seems always to contain something “more than you saw the last time”.”
Munro opens hidden doors in every story. She misguides you, lures you into a notion, shocks and sometimes repels you. I am the kind of reader (and viewer) who always tries to anticipate and see through the twists of the plot. It is an annoying habit that has ruined many movies and books for me (“I know who Kaizer Soze is!”). I love writers that have the ability to surprise you. Munro does. I have never read anything by her before, and it was mainly because of an excellent review that I wished for the book for my last birthday. It has not been a disappointment, although, I might add it has been somewhat tiring. Munro deals with topics like murder, suicide, death, infidelity and ill deeds. In some of the darker stories you just know from the start that something is off, something is not right, but it is often hard to pinpoint what it is. In others you anticipate full-on catastrophe, when the protagonist of the story just shrugs it off, or even finds new hope.
Muro’s stories are not optimistic ones. But she writes so clearly, and cut to the bone, yet her prose is so beautiful. Most of her stories feature female protagonists, women of different ages and lifestyles. That is not to say that this constitutes as some sort of chick-lit, it is really about life, and terrible things that happen in life, and how we deal with them. In a way, all of the stories are about death, too, one way or another.
I’ll give you an example of her beautiful and surprising style of writing. The second story in the collection, ‘Fiction’, is about violin-playing, bohemian Joyce, who is suddenly left by her husband for another, and I might add much plainer woman after many years and adventures together. At first Joyce voluntarily moves out their house in the woods, thinking that her husband Jon will soon come to his senses. After a while she realises he won’t, and depressed, she spirals downward by drinking too much. One morning Joyce wakes up, still drunk, and contemplates driving to Jon to tell him that they simply must stop this.
“Stop this. This is not right. Tell her to go away.
Remember we slept in the field and woke up and the cows were munching all around us and we hadn’t known they were there the night before. Remember washing in the ice-cold creek. We were picking mushrooms up on Vancouver Island and flying back to Ontario and selling them to pay for the trip when your mother was sick and we thought she was dying. And we said, What a joke, we’re not even druggies, we’re on an errand of filial piety.”
Munro takes us into Joyce’s pain when she contemplates the entire life Jon and she have had together, and Joyce’s painful realisation that it’s over. But just when you expect disaster to happen – a suicide or a murder or some other horrible thing – Munro jumps a few years in time, when Joyce is remarried, and seemingly happy, only to be unexpectedly chased down by the old story again. You never know what kind of room you’re going to end up in, in Munro’s stories.
Another story that got to me was the provocative ‘Wenlock Edge’. It features an unnamed narrator, a young college student some time past, my guess is the 40′s or 50′s. She rents a room with a young family, she’s bookish and clearly has high ambitions. One day a new girl, Nina, moves into the room. Nina is revealed to be more experienced and with a lot of emotional baggage, for one thing she has lost a newborn baby. She is in a bizarre relationship with an older benefactor who keeps tabs on Nina at all times. There is a certain amount of sexual tension between the girls and that is the way I expected the story to go – only to completely change directions when our narrator one evening is asked to dine with Mr. Purvis, the benefactor, in Nina’s stead. Nina is sick and urges the protagonist to go. Upon arriving, she is asked to strip naked for Mr. Purvis – and she does. There is no force, no threat, but she readily submits to his will. It turns out to be a decision she can’t live with.
Not of all the stories in ‘Too Much Happiness’ are one the same, high level. And as I said, I found the book to be at times draining. But they are also full of hope, and love, and new beginnings. Most of all, Munro’s labyrinths and rooms and spaces challenged and expanded my perceptions.
Not all stories will do that.