Open Secrets, Alice Munro’s eighth book, consists of eight matchless stories, each one as rich as a full novel. All of them provide compulsive reading – and rewarding re-reading.
“Perhaps you will be surprised to hear from a person you don’t know and that doesn’t remember your name.” These intriguing words begin a letter dated 1917 to the Librarian in Carstairs, Ontario (the heart of “Alice Munro Country”). The letter sweeps us away into a world of secrets and revelations where nothing – not even a courtship by letter that leads, over time, to a solid marriage – is as it originally seems.
The Ontario stories range from “A Wilderness Station,” which gives an account of an 1852 tree-felling accident and sheds light on the harsh life of the pioneers, all the way to the present, where family names known to us appear again in a world of TV shows and snowmobiles.
Just as the stories range back and forth in time, they also travel far to distant settings. Much of “The Albanian Virgin” is set in a remote mountain area where a Canadian tourist in the 1920s is captured by bandits; her tale of escape is comforting to a Victoria bookseller escaping from her own former life. “The Jack Randa Hotel” brings a deserted wife in cold pursuit to Australia, which leads to another intriguing letter. “Dear Mrs. Thornaby, It has come to my attention that you are dead…”
Things that cannot be explained happen here. In the title story a lawyer’s wife has a flash of insight – illogical, unprovable and terrifying – into the fate of a missing teenager; in another, the appearance of a long-dead visitor reveals the grip of a former love. Yet the true magic lies in the way that Alice Munro makes everything here – unexpected marriages, elopements, acts of sudden vengeance – unfold with the ease of the inevitable. This is the mark of a great writer, and it is stamped on every page of this book.
Loosely connected short stories mine both the history of a small Canadian town and the complex personal histories of Munro's protagonists.