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Saturday, April 02, 2005

Munro's fine work held back by audio format

Audiobook review: Runaway
Kevin Wood Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
By Alice Munro
Read by Kymberly Dakin
Audio Editions
9 CDs, 11 hours (unabridged)

Alice Munro's 10th collection of short stories, the Giller Prize-winning Runaway, shows both the form and writer at their best.

As always, Munro's short fiction reads like a series of compressed novels, delving deep into her characters' memories, thoughts and circumstances, dealing always with the personal rather than the political as she spins her small, psychologically compelling tales of ordinary life.

Like Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway, other modern masters of the short story, Munro rarely strays far from her own life experience, but still manages to speak to universal themes. Munro's work generally concerns a bright young woman escaping her rural Ontario, Canada, background, often through education or marriage that takes her west, only to mourn the passing of the world she grew up in when she eventually returns to her roots.

A common but nonsensical criticism of Munro is that all her main characters are women and her tales often center on women who waver between domesticity and independence, their lives changing drastically through chance or whim. Like calling Carver preoccupied with love and drinking or Hemingway obsessed with machismo, such a critique misses the point of her work entirely.

Like Hemingway and Carver, Munro's prose style is spare, deceptively simple and packs an emotional wallop. Of the eight stories here, three deal with Juliet, a classics scholar we first meet in "Chance" when she begins a love affair with Eric, a man she meets on a cross-country train trip. "Soon" sees Juliet return to her rural Ontario hometown with her year-old daughter to bid her ailing mother farewell. The third in the trio, "Silence," shows us a much older Juliet struggling with her grown daughter whom she fears has been ensnared by a cult.

The title story is that of a young woman presented with the daunting choice between being ground down in a comfortable self-delusion of innocence and faith or being forced to confront the world on its terms, find her true self and become independent. The strongest story in the collection, "Passion," concerns a young resort waitress who is suddenly thrust between two wealthy brothers.

While the reading by actress Kymberly Dakin is largely faultless, sensitive and restrained, Munro's writing suffers from the audio format, mainly because of its quality and seriousness. Munro's flawless prose deserves to be savored, and the printed form allows the reader to more easily go back and reread her seamless sentences and paragraphs, whereas the audio does not allow the listener to linger and bask in Munro's subtle art.

While the immediacy of suspense fiction or lighter comedic works is often enhanced by a dramatic reading, Munro's writing seems a bit beyond the spoken word at times, being more suited to contemplation than instant reaction.

Copyright 2005 The Yomiuri Shimbun

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