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Northern lights // The middle and muddle of life

SELECTED STORIES

By Alice Munro

Knopf, $30

Reviewed by JENNIFER HOWARD

The narrators and protagonists of these 28 stories are women, sometimes young, more often middle-aged and remembering youth. Like Alice Munro, they are Canadians, heartlanders _ they remember small towns, rural settings, antique relatives _ though some have removed themselves to big cities like Vancouver.

They are at the age when things begin to sag: bodies, psyches. They have careers, many of them, though they have also had husbands, children. Many are divorced, many have taken lovers _ their time is the late-middle of the century, with the sexual revolution complicating already complex lives. (The lovers, of course, generally prove as unsatisfying as husbands have been.) The emotional landscape of the present is vague, half-mapped; Munro's heroines are always watching their backs, looking behind them to figure out why their lives have assumed such treacherously uncertain shapes.

In "Simon's Luck," a woman named Rose, a divorced actress-turned-professor, wonders whether the man she has spent the night with will call again, and imagines lying in bed with him, entangled in a relationship that is not going to happen. It's a projection forward to the point at which it all goes wrong, as these things always do: "She would lie there wishing she had some plain defect, something her shame could curl around and protect. As it was, she would have to be ashamed of, burdened by, the whole physical fact of herself, the whole outspread naked digesting putrefying fact. Her flesh could seem disastrous; thick and porous, gray and spotty. His body would not be in question, it never would be; he would be the one who condemned and forgave . . . ."

Rose turns up again in other stories: as a young girl in "Royal Beatings"; as a college student, soon to be wife, in "The Beggar Maid." In "Wild Swans," Rose, teetering on the edge of adult sexuality, sits next to a stranger on a train who slips his hand under her skirt: "His hand, that she wouldn't ever have wanted to hold, that she wouldn't have squeezed back, his stubborn patient hand was able, after all, to get the ferns to rustle and the streams to flow, to waken a sly luxuriance."

Munro has been writing short stories for a good 30 years now, and this collection samples from eight previous collections. The first stories are the most straightforward, sometimes the most satisfying, and because narrators reappear, they almost have the feel of a disjointed novel. In the later stories in the collection Munro strikes even further into the past; in "Carried Away," a small-town librarian corresponds with an unknown World War I doughboy; in "A Wilderness Station," a woman travels to the frontier to marry a man she has never met, with violent consequences; in "Meneseteung," a spinster-poet in a raw new town chooses between conventional romance and her affair with poetry. Munro takes chances here; never too enamored of straightforward narrative, she becomes more circuitous in these tales, bouncing between decades, between narrators, letting events emerge piecemeal through letters ("Carried Away," "A Wilderness Station"). The dead make appearances; characters have hallucinations.

It's a long book, a cross-section of an impressive career, best dipped into rather than read in long sittings. (It's a pity there's no introduction or overview of Munro's work included.) Too much at once and the cumulative effect can be disheartening, not because Munro's talent falters _ it rarely does, though some of the later stories leave you vaguely dissatisfied _ but because she's so good at conveying the middle and the muddle of life, the "accidental clarity" that rarely, too rarely, penetrates "all our natural, and particular, mistakes."

Jennifer Howard is a writer living in Charlottesville, Va.

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