Wednesday 13 December 2017

Despite the bleakness, alice left us laughing

Canadian Alice Munro's stories mirror the complexities of life and love


Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage is a collection of nine short stories -- Munro's 10th such collection -- first published in 2001. It is a fairly conservative collection of stories, none of which moves far beyond Munro's preferred settings: the tiny towns and burgeoning cities of southern Ontario and British Columbia in her native Canada.

In the collection, Munro explores themes of youth (in the title story and 'Nettles'), but most of the stories concern ageing, and the tensions between men and women.

In 2006, the last story in the book, 'The Bear Came over the Mountain', wasadapted into the Oscar-nominated film Away From Her, starring Julie Christie. A screen adaptation of the title story is scheduled for release next year.


Alice Munro was born in 1931 in the town of Wingham, Ontario. She started writing as a teenager, and published her first story as a college student in 1950. Her first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shade, was published in 1968.

She followed up with Lives of Girls and Women in 1971, and continued to publish a short-story collection about once every four years throughout the 1980s and '90s. Munro has also been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and Mademoiselle.

In 2009, she was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for her lifetime body of work.


The Grundy Book Club was formed four years ago and averages eight to 10 members per session. They meet every Thursday in Donaghmede Library in Dublin, where each member takes turns selecting a book, novel or play. The book club's name is in honour of their friend John Grundy, who first arranged the group and facilitated the discussions.


Munro's collection divided the Grundy Book Club and sparked a lively debate about its merits and intentions. Mel Fitzpatrick was probably the least impressed. "The stories are very disjointed, and don't really flow," she says. "I also thought there was a lot of repetition, and not enough humour throughout.

"That said, Munro writes very beautifully about nature. I think she must be very spiritual to be able to capture and relate to it so well."

Breed Maher agrees that Munro has some wonderful descriptions in the book. "Her writing is very lyrical," she says. "I loved how she described one character's laugh as being like 'brown sugar'."

"But there's a bleakness in herstories," says Margaret O'Rourke. "Even when things work out well for the characters, that bleakness is always there."

Helen McKenna says that Munro converted her to the short-story genre. "Some of these stories have as much going on in them as fully-formed novels."

Hilda Kelly thinks that Munro is at her strongest when writing about "the dynamic between men and women. For instance, in the story 'Queenie', I was really challenged by the decisions the title character made about her relationship with the man, Stan. I couldn't understand why she would stay with such a difficult man."

Marie Hyland takes up the point: "All of her women are portrayed as downtrodden. The men seem to want to control them. I sensed that Munro didn't really understand these women herself."

Hilda disagrees with Marie's argument. "What women are downtrodden?" she asks. "The women in the stories work, they're progressive, they get ahead. I thought they were all very strong."

Hilda continues: "There's a cold theme going through Munro's stories -- a coldness in people's personalities, and in their relationships."

Marie comes back in: "There's not an awful lot of joy in her stories. Also the stories are never settled; the reader is left hanging. But maybe that's intentional, maybe that's life."

'The Bear Came Over The Mountain', a story about a husband and wife, Grant and Fiona, dealing with her early onset Alzheimer's, was a standout for the group. "This is a bleak story but there were parts where I found myself laughing," says Margaret O'Rourke. "I couldn't tell if Fiona was having the husband on. He thought she was just punishing him for an earlier mistake."

Terri Donoghue was fascinated by the marital compromises that were evidently made by the central characters. "Grant had several affairs, but he still clearly loved Fiona," she says. "Despite his transgressions, he never had an intention about leaving her. He even had his affairs within office hours. Can you believe that shrewdness?"

For Anne Little, the reality of life -- if that's how it can be described -- with Alzheimer's really hit home. "I know a lot of people in that situation, for example leaving post-it notes as reminders around the house," she says. "That was very poignant. There were a lot of references to people with dementia as 'them'. It was heartbreaking, and conveyed their increasing isolation."

Their own reservations aside, the group would recommend Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. "Short stories are great for a reading group because they provoke so much discussion," sums up Margaret O'Rourke. "Munro certainly did that for us, and it left me intrigued to find out more about her work."

NEXT MONTH'S IRISH INDEPENDENT BOOK CLUB CHOICE is Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. If your book club would like to take part in our monthly book club feature, or if you are reading next month's choice along with us and would like us to include your thoughts on the book, please contact or Irish Independent Book Club, 27-32 Talbot Street, Dublin 1.

Irish Independent

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