Alice Munro, Dimension

Alice Munro, from Random House Australia

Alice Munro, from Random House Australia

Alice Munro won this year’s Man Booker International Prize. You probably know that she is a Canadian short story writer. I have read many of her short stories over the years, though not as many as I would like.


Her short story “Dimension” was published in the New Yorker in 2006, and was then included in the 2007 edition of Best American Short Stories. In some ways, particularly in its tone, it reminded me of Lionel Shriver’s We need to talk about Kevin. Like “Kevin” it deals with the build up and fallout after a terrible tragedy caused by a family member, but the details of the tragedy and the focus of the story is different.

Munro clues us in very early that something terrible has happened. In the second para she writes this about the main character through whose point of view we see the story: “She liked the work – it occupied her thoughts to a certain extent and tired her out SO THAT [my emphasis] she could sleep at night”. Ah, we think, why does she have trouble sleeping? And then at the end of that paragraph is: “She didn’t want to have to talk to people”. The next para is more clear that she has been involved in something terrible: she had been “in the paper”. In this paragraph we get the first mention of “he”. “He” is nameless in the first few mentions, conveying to us a sense of mystery and, yes, menace. Not naming him at this point also depersonalises him; it makes him “other” to we named people.

This, then, is a story about one of those terrible family tragedies that we see in the news and wonder about: how did it get to that point, how does the mother (or whoever is left) keep going, etc? Munro explores these questions sensitively, conveying how Doree’s youth and inexperience resulted in her making a poor decision at a vulnerable time in her life which then stunted her further development of self – with devastating consequences. And, she does a good job of building up a picture of a controlling man (the husband Lloyd), but through Doree’s eyes so that we see her growing awareness of his nature. Her awareness though is accompanied by an uncertainty born of someone who does not know enough to judge properly, to know what is “normal” and what isn’t. Munro also makes us believe in Doree’s post-tragedy path – her going-through-the-motions distance from those around her and her tie to the perpetrator who is the only person to offer her a “refuge” peculiar though that refuge is. Munro’s resolution to all this could be seen as a little melodramatic, but it is clever…and, reassuringly, somewhat hopeful.

In other words, like all Munro’s stories, this is well worth a read.

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