Alice Munro’s 2004 short story collection Runaway features eight vivid tales that are as pointedly intimate as they are wholly universal.
There’s a completeness to Alice Munro’s stories that is quite unparalleled in the form. Not one of Runaway’s eight inclusions feels incidental. There are no sketch writings, fragmentary excerpts, or pretty pieces of aimless prose; a trend that seems to mar many a contemporary short story collection. Instead, each story feels as if it is a mini-novella, several of which span years and feature multiple perspectives.
Highlights include Trespasses and Tricks. The former centres on Lauren, a world-wise eleven-year-old, whose liberal-minded parents seem to be causing her more harm than good. Isolated from her peers, Lauren forms a friendship with Delphine, a mysterious older woman whose intentions for the girl are unclear. Tricks on the other hand is a simple tale of loneliness and a loveless existence that hinges on a moment of ill-fated misunderstanding. Three of the stories – Chance, Soon, and Silence – form a loose trilogy that focus on Juliet at various instances in her adult life. The first instalment is an especially powerful tale that deals with love and death on a train journey brought to a standstill in the snow.
Stylistic and structural patterns emerge over the collection, which in less capable hands could easily become repetitive and tiresome. But Munro is the ultimate artist meets craftswoman. She sets down her sturdy, time-tested story frameworks, then proceeds to colour in the detail with exquisite shades of endlessly new ideas and emotions that always feel pointedly intimate whilst also being wholly universal in scope. Munro’s deftness at using twists and reveals – narrative devices which can too quickly assert an air of gimmickry to storytelling – to elicit real emotion rather than hackneyed melodrama is further testament to how her stories showcase a happy marriage between the unfettered nature of art and the discipline of craft. With such authorial prowess on display, it is no wonder Munro has been dubbed the master of the contemporary short story.