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The Nobel committee for literature managed to surprise me last week with the award of the prize to Canadian treasure Alice Munro. Her stories have been a marvel to me ever since coming across The Albanian Virgin in The New Yorker (here but free only for subscribers)

The twists in the story, the multiple storylines, the shifts in time, they all worked together so that by the end, I was both exclaiming praise out loud and resting my head against the back of the chair in wonder at the audaciousness that had all worked together.

When "Runaway" came out in the collection of the same name in 2004 (a collection that won the Giller Prize), well, Alice Munro became one of the touchstones against which I measure all short stories. It may not be her most brilliant or best-known, but it was the one I came across that showed me the power of restraint that can carry a full measure of emotional wallop. The entire storyis available online.

There are two women in the story who both illuminate the acts of other characters although they are unable to recognize the truth for themselves. Carla is the young one, caught up in an emotionally abusive relationship with a forceful, angry man. Clark has taken her away from her comfortable family life and they are living in much-reduced conditions in a single-wide, tending to a few horses and offering trail rides that no one wants in a dreary rainy season. Even her solace, a little goat named Flora, has disappeared.

Sylvia is recently widowed, teaches at university and is comfortably off after her older poet husband's death. When the story opens, she is returning from Greece, where she went on holiday after the last illness of Leon, her late husband.

Clark is eager for Carla to go see Sylvia. He thinks she should be able to talk Sylvia into giving them some money because of stories Carla told him about the late Leon's wish to know Carla better. What Clark doesn't know is that Carla made up the story, trying to humor and titillate Clark. He's picked quarrels with nearly everyone and wants her to go to them for business dealings. In classic abused wife thinking, Carla wants to cajole Clark. He swept her off her feet one summer and she's been making excuses about him to herself ever since. She sees far more in him than this reader.

Sylvia is eager to see Carla. Her uncomplicated nature comforted Sylvia during Leon's convalescence and cleaning out the house following his death. She sees far more in Carla than what the reader has been shown.

What Clark wants for Carla and what Sylvia wants are two very different things, and that conflict will propel the narrative. What Sylvia sees in Carla is reflected in a gift she brought back from Greece, the reproduction of a boy on a horse. The vitality of youth that Sylvia sees in the boy is what she thinks she sees in Carla. But is Carla the rider? Or is she the horse under the control of Clark?

Or, is it more likely that Carla is closer to Flora, the little goat who disappears, is the catalyst in what both Sylvia and Clark decide to do regarding Carla and has an outcome that is not explicitly stated but which is not difficult to discern?

The story has many moments that display the power of Munro's writing. The tone is quiet, yet there are scenes of danger and suspense. There is genuine sorrow and regret. There is foreshadowing that does not smack the reader over the head -- when the weather changes from rain to sun and one of the main characters "was able to see not much trace at all of the recent past" -- but which nonetheless strikes home.

Munro's women such as these are shown as solid, as people to be considered seriously even when they make silly choices or shallow ones. Even if Sylvia and Carla make mistakes, they are not scorned or ridiculed by Munro. It is this underpinning of serious consideration that makes the characters so worthwhile. This is what feminism was to me in the 20th century -- a serious consideration of all the choices we might be able to make, the ways in which we lived our lives and the people we chose to live them with. This outlook has not thrived in public life in the last few decades.

But when we can still read Munro, and the high quality of her work is recognized, there remains the possibility of that once was can be built upon.

Meanwhile, the Man Booker Prize today went to the youngest winner with one of the longest books yet submitted: New Zealander Eleanor Catton, 28, and The Luminaries. It's more than 800 pages and set during the 1866 New Zealand gold rush. There's a dead hermit, a fortune in gold, a missing rich man, a beat-up prostitute, seances, opium and multiple voices to bring them all together. I can hardly wait until my copy arrives. Discovering books like this is why I keep track of literary awards -- what's merely touted and what's really good? Awards are but one way to start making that distinction.

Scheduling note: Because of real-world obligations, it's likely I won't be able to post a diary next Tuesday. If anyone else would like to post a Contemporary Fiction Views next week, please do! I'll be back the following week.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Oct 15, 2013 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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