Dance of the
by Alice Munro
Winner of The Governor General's Award
Alice Munro was born in Wingham, Ontario, in
1931. She still lives in the same area. Her first
collection of short fiction, Dance
of the Happy Shades (1968), won the Governor General’s
award. She has won many other awards since then for her short
fiction, culminating in the Man Booker International prize for her
lifetime’s achievement in 2009.
Love the review? Disagree violently? Come rant and rave in our forums >>>>>
"Mason Williams was one of the heroes
of the school; he played basketball and hockey and walked the halls
with an air of royal sullenness and barbaric contempt. To
have to dance with a nonentity like me was as offensive to him as
having to memorize Shakespeare."
Reviewed by Brian George
Like all lovers of short fiction, I punched the air when I heard Alice
Munro had been awarded the 2009 Man Booker International Prize for her
lifetime’s work. At last, I thought, some proper recognition that
Munro, who has concentrated on short stories throughout her writing
career, is as worthy of literary plaudits as much better known (but not
better) novelists. It’s been interesting, then, to re-read recently her
first published story collection, Dance
of the Happy Shades.
book was published in 1968, and may at first glance appear to be out of
step with its time. After all, this was the year of the May events in
Paris, student uprisings across Europe, massive anti-Vietnam war
protests on both sides of the Atlantic. In music, Jimi Hendrix spent
months reworking Bob Dylan’s bleakly minimalist All Along the Watchtower
into his stunning, apocalyptic version of the end of things, and
everywhere Dylan’s prescient words about the overthrow of the old order
– in politics, culture, society – seemed to be acquiring the force of
prophecy. From Munro’s home country of Canada Leonard Cohen, Joni
Mitchell and Neil Young were all emerging at this time.
was Alice Munro, writing about an apparently circumscribed world in
southern Canada, peopling her fiction with characters whose lives seem
never to have been touched by Elvis Presley, let alone Dylan, Hendrix
or Young. In most of these stories the turbulent world outside seems
completely shut out, as the characters go about their business working
in shops, running farms, bringing up children.
entirely true, of course. In a few of the stories key social concerns
of the late 1960s find an echo. The first person narrator of The Office,
a writer who finds it hard to work at home with her husband and family
in the background, yearns for a room of her own, a private space where
she can do her creative work, reflecting a major theme in feminist
thinking of this period. In The
the main character takes a quiet stand against the snobbery and
intolerance of the new suburban community where she lives, while the
title story of the collection satirises a similarly small-minded
attitude towards youngsters with learning difficulties.
main, though, the stories are set in a slightly earlier time, the 1950s
or even 1940s, and must have had a faintly archaic air to readers even
in 1968. This is small-town Canada with a vengeance. The context for
many of these stories is beautifully encapsulated in these lines from The Peace of Utrecht:
whole town, its rudimentary pattern of streets and its bare trees and
muddy yards just free of the snow… dirt roads where the lights of cars
appeared, jolting towards the town, under an immense pale wash of sky."
And yet this apparently mean, pinched, old-fashioned setting
provides Munro with the framework she needs to explore wide themes:
love and sex, family relationships, class tensions, growing up and
growing old. Like Faulkner before her, restricting her canvas
geographically seems to liberate Munro’s imagination.
the descriptive writing in these stories is breathtakingly good.
Unobtrusively, Munro often slips an image into an a quiet, unremarkable
description, casting a whole new light on a scene, character or object:
"the sky was pale, cool, smoothly ribbed with light and flushed at the
edges, like the inside of a shell."
From the same story (A Trip to the Coast) this
description of the main character’s grandmother tells us all we need to
know about her:
was dressed for the day in a print dress, a blue apron rubbed and dirty
across the stomach, an unbuttoned, ravelling, no-colour sweater that
had once belonged to her husband, and a pair of canvas shoes… She had
knobbly fleshless legs and her arms were brown and veined and twisted
It’s not just in describing characters or scenes that we see
Munro’s wonderfully precise observational skills. This is as good a
description as you are likely to find of the feeling of getting drunk,
very fast, for the first time:
"I did not have in mind the
ceiling spinning like a great plate somebody had thrown at me, nor the
pale green blobs of the chairs swelling, converging, disintegrating,
playing with me, a game full of enormous senseless inanimate malice."
This capacity to look, quietly but unflinchingly, at people,
places and events, informs all the stories and is possibly Munro’s
greatest strength as a writer. Most of the stories involve a girl or
young woman as the main protagonist, often seen at a key moment in her
life when she is becoming aware of the powerful, chaotic potential of
sex and the complexity of gender roles and relations in the society she
lives in. This is usually combined with a merciless dissection of
In Boys and
the young first-person narrator likes to think of herself as her
father’s natural helper, much more suited to the "masculine" tasks
associated with farming and fox-skinning than her younger brother. She
describes the mechanics of skinning foxes in loving detail, and
comments about the pervasive smell left behind "I found it reassuringly
seasonal, like the smell of oranges and pine needles." Gradually,
though, as she grows towards adolescence, this sense of herself as a
tough, unladylike individual is brought into question by the
expectations of her family and the society she lives in. Eventually it
is her younger brother who is taken with his father, as a rite of
passage, when one of their old horses is shot, and the narrator is
dismissed with the phrase "She’s only a girl."
What makes Boys and Girls
such a memorable story – apart from the vivid, unsentimental, precise
quality of the prose, of course and the intelligent use of symbolism to
illustrate the dilemma faced by the main character – is the complexity
of her development. In one sense, she is indignant at the way she is
gradually frozen out of the masculine world, but at the same time Munro
shows how she begins to grow, almost in spite of herself, into her
mysterious role as a "girl". We see her standing in front of the
mirror, "wondering if I would be pretty when I grew up." At the end of
the story, she doesn’t even protest the way she is belittled as "only a
girl", commenting "maybe it was true."
Like all great writers,
Munro, though she writes superbly crafted stories, will often break the
"rules" of short fiction writing. Some of the stories take a while to
get going: more often than not the opening of a story gives little
indication of where it will end up, either in terms of plot or theme.
This is not because Munro indulges in cheap twists, but in many of the
pieces there occurs what I can only term a "swerve", as the story
quietly moves off in an unexpected direction. There are few neatly
tied-up endings here: the reader is usually left with something to
ponder, or a sense that the world is messy and complicated.
For me, the
most haunting ending comes in The
Peace of Utrecht
(yet another broken rule: this title gives absolutely no inkling of
what the story is to be "about"), a story showing the complex
relationships between two sisters and their mother, who has a
degenerative disease. The story ends with the accidental smashing of a
fruit bowl, which seems to symbolise the fractured life of the sister
who stayed behind to look after her mother, and her inexplicable
inability to move on with her life even after the mother’s death.
The truth is that there are many treasures here for lovers of short
fiction. Even a story like A Trip to
which is not the most successful, for me, contains wonderful snatches
of dialogue and description. I can easily forgive Munro for the
uncharacteristically melodramatic nature of the "swerve" in the story
for lines like this: "In the close afternoon she could smell the
peculiar flesh smell of her grandmother who stood over her; it was
sweetish and corrupt like the smell of old apple peel going soft."
who know Munro’s later work will find much to admire and enjoy in this
collection, while anyone who isn’t acquainted with her writing could
very well start the journey of discovery here.