I am fond of specific Alice Munro collections: A Friend of My Youth because it was my first, Open Secrets because it was the impetus for a particularly good book club discussion some years ago, and Runaway.
Runaway because I have a memory of reading it in a cafe in Stratford the winter after it was published and, while I was seated at the table with a hot drink and a treat and my book, Alice Munro walked in.
I had just reached the point in the collection where one can’t help but marvel at the way that the stories are pleated together, and my reading life and my real life nestled together as well.
So I sat down to reread this collection with some eagerness, bolstered by nostalgia. But within a few pages, I remembered more. That this first story contained a tense and difficult scene with a woman who felt threatened by a man’s unexpected presence in a room with her and, also, a bloody death.
It has been ten years. But these experiences, too, were worth remembering apparently. Though only vague and murky impressions, these scenes lodged in my reader’s brain as solidly as the image of a woman in a black coat coming in from the winter to warm herself in a cafe in which I read for entire afternoons.
This story’s atmosphere is overwhelmingly weighty. From the opening sentence: “Carla heard the car coming before it topped the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill.”
Readers have many clues here. First, the perspective is Carla’s, so it is limited. (Later, of course, it is also Sylvia’s perspective, as the women’s stories intersect and the voices alternate.) And she is in a state of anticipation. She is straining to see what is coming next. Our narrator is openly stressed.
The world she inhabits normally is quiet and insular. From the barn, she can hear a car on the road some distance away, even without the visual cue of the car itself. And this world has its own language, one which lends an air of the grandiose to the mundane.
Or, perhaps, Carla is simply the kind of person for whom words are often disappointments. Perhaps this is a hint that she would prefer to inhabit a world with hills but, instead, there is only a small rise. And she, on top of all that, is on the other side of it, not even at the peak, though she can see it in the distance.
Carla’s understanding sprawls far beyond readers’ comprehension, for of course she can explain her anxiety, but the scene is clearly ominous. Even readers freshly arrived to the action/inaction can recognize the tension immediately.
Carla wants to see, seems nearly desperate to see, but is simultaneously concerned that she not be seen. Not only wanting to avoid being seen by the driver but also that she not be seen not wanting to be seen when she is straining to see by Clark, who is at home with her.
Yes, I’m making it complicated deliberately, but so is our storyteller. Even within a single perspective (be it Carla’s or Sylvia’s), there are many layers to the questions of motivation and these shift even within a single reading. But there is no possibility of misunderstanding for readers on one matter: this is a messy situation.
“It was almost a relief, though, to feel the single pain of missing Flora, of missing Flora perhaps forever, compared to the mess she had got into concerning Mrs. Jamieson, and her seesaw misery with Clark. At least Flora’s leaving was not on account of anything that she – Carla – had done wrong.”
Carla’s despair (and, furthermore, Sylvia’s grief, as readers come to understand) are reflected in the heavy rains the region has received. They have caused substantial damage and repairs are still underway. But something turns in “Runaway” and the tone shift is evident in the landscape as well.
“There was enough of a wind blowing to lift the roadside grass, the flowering weeds, out of their drenched clumps. Summer clouds, not rain clouds, were scudding across the sky. The whole country side was changing, shaking itself loose into the true brightness of a July day.”
But what of Carla’s “seesaw misery” with Clark? “She saw him as the architect of the life ahead of them, herself as captive, her submission both proper and exquisite.” At what point in her life is this perspective valid? Is she looking at her past self or her present self? How is her status both proper and exquisite? And how carefully must she breathe, in order to guard her own survival? Who is the title’s runaway, really?
“It was as if she had a murderous needle somewhere in her lungs, and by breathing carefully, she could avoid feeling it. But every once in a while she had to take a deep breath, and it was still there.”
This opening story forces readers to take an uncomfortably deep breath, feel the pain, and then navigate a series of shorter exhalations as the tension rises and falls in unexpected ways. As events unfold, a moment of great crisis dissipates into silence (and the reader must wait for another character’s perspective to gain some understanding of the gap) and a moment of would-should-could-have-been-resolution escalates the tension until readers are breathless.
In so many ways, I long for this story to be other than it is. Even as I admire it for its insistance upon the difficult.
If you know this story, how does it leave you feeling? And, if you do not, are there any other Munro collections in your stacks?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Runaway as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the first story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week: “Change”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.