After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, Alice Munro seems like an obvious choice for the first author on a Canada reading list, but this wasn’t always the case. Her collection Runaway (Vintage, 2006) features a foreword by Jonathan Franzen that suggests her relative obscurity outside of her home country might be tied to the fact that short story writers are rarely awarded internationally acclaimed prizes. Whatever the state of her fame may be, Munro’s dense writing shows that a 30 page story can be as complex and thought-provoking as a 300 page novel.
Runaway is about movement. Whether it’s as small and transient as a day trip to the next town or as grand and permanent as the relocation from Eastern to Western Canada, all her characters are on the move. Some run from suffocating living conditions, tragic incidents, or well-kept secrets. Others move towards something, be it love, money, or a better version of themselves. Munro dives deep down into the psyche of her characters and exposes their flaws and shortcomings without mercy. None of them appear to be people you would like to befriend. They also appear to be me and you, which leaves a feeling of unease at the end of each story.
„Chance“, „Soon“, and „Silence“ revolve around the character Juliet at multiple stages of her life: As a recent university graduate, a young mother, a person looking for her place in life after the death of her partner and the disappearance of her daughter. The stories depict the landscape, customs, and living conditions of coastal British Columbia between the 1930s and 1960s interwoven with Juliet’s thoughts and emotions: Upon first arrival in Whale Bay, she finds the weather too damp and rainy and the beauty of the forest pretentious, whereas a couple of years later, she has adapted to island life both in her appearance and her opinions, wearing her hair long and defending her status as an unmarried woman with a small child. In the last story, however, it turns out she never really succeeded in becoming a part of the island community: After her partner’s death, she leaves it behind easily to settle into a more comfortable life in Vancouver.
The story cycle raises many questions: How do the landscape, climate, and culture we grow up with influence our perception of a new place? Can we ever truly move beyond the values instilled in us during childhood? How, where, and why do we attempt to place down roots? How much does the opinion of an outsider count compared to that of a longterm member of a community? Munro addresses some of these questions, but leaves the answers up to the readers.