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Runaway
ISBN 140004281X
By Alice Munro
Review by: Michelle Humphrey

06/06/05

Alice Munro, who Allan Gurganus describes as “our greatest and most subtle surrealist,” has herself lived a surreal sort of life, hiding in the “disguise” (her word) of a 1950s housewife while writing the ingenious short stories that fifty years later fill twelve collections. Runaway includes eight stories about characters that can be best defined as “Munro-esque:” women who exist at the crossroads of the real and fantastic. They are confused and complicated, yet rise to a moment of poetic clarity before resuming the ongoing muddle of their lives.

The title story centers on Carla, an unhappy wife who tries to escape from her arrogant husband. The subplot is just as compelling as it revolves around the sudden disappearance of Carla’s pet goat, a fairytale-like creature transformed in Carla’s care much as Carla transforms in the presence of her elder neighbor Sylvia. Sylvia endows Carla “with some kind of remarkable safety and sanity,” and makes her desire to escape feel rational. We also enter Sylvia’s inner life, with her crush on Carla and her ability to see poetry in the brief appearance of the lost goat, leading to thoughts of her dead poet-husband: “In [Sylvia’s] experience the subjects that she thought a poet could write about did not appeal to Leon.” This is familiar Munro territory, where the mind of the female protagonist is contrasted to her Other, in most cases, mother, daughter or husband.

In “Trespasses,” that female protagonist is the ten-year-old Lauren who one expects will come of age in spite of her bickering, over-intellectualizing parents. Questions about Lauren’s birth mother coincide with the arrival of Delphine, a newcomer to town, who seeks out Lauren’s friendship. Their conversations with each other are comforting and safe, and Lauren “never got the feeling as she did at home, that if she didn’t watch out she’d be pried open.” Yet Delphine has her delicately sinister side: “[Her] singing was like an embrace…. At the same time, its loose emotion gave Lauren a shiver in her stomach, a distant threat of being sick.” The chaos that follows will continue a pattern in Lauren’s home life, “a recklessness…that had not yet been expressed in words.” Munro has been negotiating the unexpressed recklessness through much of her career, and an image she created some thirty years ago still applies – here is a further exploration of “deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum,” lives that are outwardly ordinary yet profoundly enigmatic.

“Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence” form a narrative triptych. In “Chance,” Juliet, a precocious young teacher, decides to drop by the home of a passionate man she once met on a train. In “Soon,” she visits her sick mother with the baby of that man. And in “Silence,” the most resonant piece, that baby is the 21-year-old Penelope who vanishes from Juliet’s life, a variation of a classic Munro theme – the disappeared girl – that the author earlier depicted in stories as “Open Secrets” and “Queenie.” Queenie was impetuous and we expected her to run off, but Penelope is reflective, noble and filled with such grace that her disappearance is strange and wrenching. As Juliet asks herself desperate questions, we so thoroughly feel the daughter’s absence that we wander into the unwritten realm of the story, filling in for ourselves the answer of Penelope.

The final story, “Powers,” features the clairvoyant Tessa, a preternaturally self-possessed character who lands a gig as a stage psychic until her powers fail. Munro writers about Tessa’s audiences who “hope that it’s not all fake. And it’s because performers like Tessa…know about this hope and understand it…that they can begin…to get the right results.” The audiences, and the unsettled characters orbiting Tessa’s life, want something to believe in, and find in Tessa an open-hearted authenticity. Not unlike the readers of Alice Munro, who can rest assured this collection continues her matchless oeuvre of grounded, dreaming, hopeful and haunted women.


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