Voices on Alice Munro

  • Janice Flamengo (Editor) and Gerald Lynch (Editor)
    Alice Munro's Miraculous Art: Critical Essays. University of Ottawa Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Laura K. Davis

Janice Fiamengo and Gerald Lynch’s edited collection of essays on Alice Munro brings together a number of rigorous pieces from scholars across the country on one of Canada’s best writers. The essays, which began as presentations for the Alice Munro Symposium at the University of Ottawa in 2014, are diverse in subject matter and style.

The editors strategically and successfully ordered the essays according to three broad approaches to Munro’s work: form, theme, and effect. Essays cover Munro’s full career, from her earliest writings—analyzed in D. M. R. Bentley’s “The Short Stories of Alice Laidlaw, 1950-51,”—to her later writings such as Dear Life, discussed by Alisa Cox. The collection ends appropriately with a final section called “L’Envoi,” which includes a single essay written by critic Magdalene Redekop. She reflects upon her reading of Munro’s short story “Lichen” many years after her first encounter with it. “When I look backward,” Redekop notes, “I am aware that one constant for me has been a repeated return to the stability of individual texts that offer new rewards each time they are reread.” Such an assertion indicates the importance and timelessness of Munro’s stories. Redekop’s essay, retrospective and conversational in tone, makes for an excellent conclusion to the collection.

Many of the essays focus on aspects of Munro’s writing that identify her as a difficult yet skilled and exemplary writer. Trina Trigg’s analysis of Munro’s short story cycles highlights absences or mysteries in her work, while Ian Dennis addresses deferral of meaning as he discusses “stories within stories” in Munro’s well known “Royal Beatings.” Two excellent essays, Sara Jamieson’s “‘The stuff they put in the old readers'” and Maria Löschnigg’s “Carried Away by Letters,” discuss the complexities of Munro’s inclusion of different literary forms in her writing—poetry and letters, respectively. Jamieson argues that oral recitation both celebrates community and demonstrates the “erosion of familial and communal bonds” in Munro’s work, whereas Löschnigg argues that “Munro’s stories abound with letters” that, while to different effects, always “play an important role.” In one of the best essays in the collection. Linda M. Morra nuances the familiar debate regarding the extent to which Munro’s writing is autobiographical, suggesting that Munro is strategically ambiguous “in terms of what she allows us to know.” Morra argues, moreover, that Munro creates space or distance between writer and reader in order to highlight the notion of shame and the question of what readers have a “right to know,” particularly when it comes to autobiographical discourse.

Taken together, the essays collected in Alice Munro’s Miraculous Art make an important addition to the substantial corpus of literary criticism on Munro, incorporating new and important perspectives on the beloved Canadian short story writer.