Reading well doesn’t just mean reading a lot. It also means reading closely to see what the author is doing with language, punctuation, tense, and words. Noticing these sometimes subtle nuances helps understand the writer’s craft and hone one’s own.
Alice Munro is a 92 year old Canadian author whose specialty is short stories that reflect the human condition. She is considered one of the world’s most important fiction writers and is a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (2013). Most of the Munro stories I have read are about hard luck, a difficult life and seemingly unmanageable complexities related to human nature. Her book, Dear Life: Stories is not different from her usual approach. However, in reading this one, I went a little beyond the content of the stories and analyzed her approach.
In Haven, I saw the tense change from past to present as the uncle entered the house. He was an intolerant and difficult man whose mere presence changed the atmosphere and the language. ‘The storm door is opening now, then the door into the front hall and, without the usual pause there to remove boots and winter coat or scarf, my uncle strides into the living room.’ Once he leaves, things come back to normal, along with the language. ‘When I came down in the morning, Uncle Jasper had already left the house. Bernice was washing dishes in the kitchen and Aunt Dawn was putting away the crystal glasses in the china cabinet.’
Munro uses the same approach in Corrie. While Corrie is still in the dark about Howard blackmailing her, the language is past tense and casual. ‘She wondered if by any chance he would hear the news before her letter could get it to him. Not possible. He hadn’t reached the stage of checking obituaries yet.’ But once a few wheels turn and the gears click into place in her head and she realizes that she’s been had, the language changes dramatically and reverts to present tense. ‘No news about Lillian, because Lillian doesn’t matter and she never did. No post office box, because the money goes straight into an account or maybe just into a wallet. General expenses. Or a modest nest egg. A trip to Spain. Who cares?’
Munro’s way of telling a story can be quite straightforward with beautiful language and descriptions or, very often, with a twist. In Pride, she alludes to the narrator’s harelip, but very obtusely. ‘My impediment, even with the lip stitched up, ruled out anything that involved a lot of talking, so I settled for bookkeeping, and that meant going out of town to apprentice to an outfit in Goderich.’ The harelip comes into better focus when the narrator questions escaping the draft and it is only then that you know, for sure. ‘Why should a harelip, decently if not quite cleverly tidied up, and a voice that sounded somewhat peculiar but was capable of being understood, have been considered enough to keep me home?’
And then there’s Munro’s playful side that surfaces occasionally in her stories. In Sight of The Lake has one such little laugh. ‘She says that the specialist’s office is located in a village called Hymen, twenty or so miles away from where Nancy lives. ‘Oh dear, a marriage specialist,’ says Nancy. The girl doesn’t get it, begs her pardon. And then, the punch line – Highman. So that’s what it was, no joke. Population 1,553.’
Munro’s language is beautifully crafted, then hewn to perfection. Sentences such as this one attest to her gift. ‘His opinions were something like his complexion.’ And this one, ‘So he was propelled not by hunger but by the need to make a statement of pure and mighty disapproval.’
Priya Hajela is the author of Ladies’ Tailor, published by Harper Collins India.