ALICE Munro is a prolific writer who got only more experimental in her later works, and this transition in style can be seen in Family Furnishings, a collection of her unique and imaginative short stories from the last two decades. Munro is a writer of exposition rather than action. Most of the stories in this collection don’t offer much in the traditional plot sense but we see the narrative turn inwards like a vortex, shattering the surface to bring to light a rich internal world.
These two dozen stories are set in small towns in the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia in Canada. The characters inhabit a world that is significantly different from the present. That was the time when rules of conduct and morality were more restrictive in nature, especially for women; men and women were expected to presume set roles and follow predetermined paths. Small-town families struggling to make a living while fighting off their inner demons are the focus of these stories. The connecting motif of the volume is an investigation into the human condition which cleverly uncovers the founding myths and beliefs of the dynamics of human relationships. In her writing even inconspicuous details of life transcend from the ordinary to symbolic events. This transition from day-to-day life to narrative is all the more impressive in the limited scope of a challenging genre like the short story.
‘My Mother’s Dream’ is one of my favourite stories from this volume. In this beautiful story Munro shows us a budding mother-and-daughter relationship with an entirely original twist. It is the story of a young female orphan who is learning to play the violin and meets a man. Sadly, he goes off to war and is killed, leaving her alone and pregnant. The sadness of the moment when the mother tries to play the violin for her newborn baby for the first time and then realises that her baby hates the music is overwhelming. Her inability to play well since giving birth symbolises the loss of creativity for the sake of motherhood. However, it is the moment when the baby chooses survival over victory and comes back to life from the threshold of death that mother and daughter forgive each other.
‘The Children Stay’, on the other hand, focuses on the clash between the duties of motherhood and freedom. The protagonist is in an unhappy marriage where she has to let go of her individuality to appease her husband. She is aware that “if you were going to be around him much, you almost had to see his way — arguing was dangerous and exhausting”. But when she takes part in a local school theatre and falls in love with the director she realises that “the only difference in his treatment of her is that perhaps he expects less of her, of her acting, than he does of others” despite the fact that she is the only one who has already read the play.
Nevertheless, she leaves her husband but soon discovers that she feels like she has “a sack over her head; a fluid choice, the choice of fantasy is poured out on the ground and instantly hardens; it has taken its undeniable shape”. The protagonist’s failure to liberate herself does not, however, undo her initiative to take control of her life. Munro tells us by the end that she leaves the director to live a tough life on her own terms. The children, however, don’t hate her. But they don’t forgive her either. Munro’s characters, after all, are often trying to escape their immediate surroundings, suffocating relationships or their subconscious fears but there is no salvation.
‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ is probably the most romantic story in the collection but it’s far from what you expect when you think of romantic stories. It’s the story of Fiona and Grant who meet, fall in love and get married. The story begins with Fiona rubbing a grey mark on her kitchen floor as she’s getting ready to leave. It’s not hard to miss the sadness behind her cheerful chat with her husband: “I guess I’ll be dressed up all the time… It’ll be sort of like in a hotel”. Later it is revealed that Fiona is suffering from dementia and her husband is taking her to a care facility called Meadowlake hoping for “a rest cure”. When on their way to Meadowlake Fiona reminisces about a fond moonlit night they shared, Grant finds it hard to believe that he is losing his wife to a cruel illness: “It was all he could do not to turn around and drive home”.
We find our sympathies completely aligned with the husband when we find him suffering and seeing his wife, who no longer recognises him, develop a strong relationship with a fellow patient. However, much like relationships there are no ideal characters in Munro’s world. It is gradually revealed that for a while he was unfaithful to his wife. Nevertheless, he finds a possibility of atonement in the end by going against his self-interest and reuniting Fiona with her friend. “You could have just driven away,” she said. “Just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken.”
‘Passion’, on the other hand, is about first love, disappointment and growing up. Maury is the ideal boyfriend who respects Grace and wants to marry her, but Grace wants passion instead of marriage: “she was willing. And Maury was ready, but not willing. He felt it his responsibility to protect her. And the ease with which she offered herself threw him off balance.”
There’s hardly any action in stories such as ‘Working for a Living’, ‘Home’ and ‘Wood’. The first two are partly biographical in nature; whereas the first story is about a girl growing up on a farm and her relationship with her parents who have to struggle all their lives to make a living, the second story is about an aspiring writer who finds herself torn between her daughterly duty to take care of her sick father and her dream of being a writer. If the little girl is ashamed of her mother’s brazen attitude towards making money, the grown-up daughter is dismissive of her stepmother. Both of them wrongly presume that their fathers are ashamed of their wives; “women judged women more harshly than they did men”, as we are told in ‘Working for a Living’.
Guilt, pain, grief, mental deterioration, ambition and yearning for love are some of the recurring themes of this collection. Munro’s life-like characters are complex and smart but stuck in their own miserable lives; they can be a little cruel at times too. Her psychological insight into their turbulent relationships, physical suffering and the pain of loss is cut-throat, honest, and often laced with her unsettling dark humour.
Family Furnishings: Selected Short Stories 1995-2014
By Alice Munro
Alfred A. Knopf, US