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Too Much Happiness, short story collection, Alice Munro

To much happiness

‘Dimensions,’ is a complex, disturbing and extraordinary short story buried in the middle of ‘Too much happiness’, a recent (2010) collection by Alice Munro. ‘Dimensions’ tells the story of Doree, an abused wife whose husband killed their children, a subject which I suspect would make many of us turn away and try, if anything, to disengage from. But Munro pulls the reader in kicking to a story which begins with a very familiar kind of domestic bullying but which in Munro’s capable hands eventually comes to hold the largest of all possible themes: religion, terrorism, grief, power, madness. Munro skilfully shows the insidious ways in which Doree’s power is taken, how each power grab by her abuser is infinitesimally small but how the changes gather in her. Munro unstitches the reader a little too, until what might have looked at first glance like a complicity or submission on Doree’s part, starts to seem more like something which in small, slow changes could happen to anybody’s daughter, mother, friend. Doree’s youth, her inexperience, lack of education and disconnection from strong family or friendship connections, above all the repeated pregnancies which her husband uses to control her (conveniently the abuser ‘doesn’t believe in’ contraception), these are not the only things which make Doree vulnerable but they certainly don’t help. Munro tells the very human story behind the gruesome headlines, unravelling the ways in which a person may be entrapped and made invisible over the course of a long relationship until being abused feels normal.

Spoiler alert:

Munro explores some interesting questions around the role of therapy and religion in the aftermath of tragedy: Mrs Sands does not look Doree in the eye and face her patient’s pain safely, squarely, perhaps because she’s not sure she can handle it herself. The therapist’s need to take professional measures to distance herself in a case like Doree’s seems entirely human and Mrs Sands is by no means unkind, she is not even a bad therapist, Munro appears to hint that the problem simply goes beyond the solutions therapy has to offer. Or perhaps that the therapist’s failure to reach Doree has been not so much a lack of empathy on her part as a lack of courage. Mrs Sands finds small ways to step around relating completely to her patient, she calls Doree’s dead children “Your family”, small pause and head slightly averted. Micro-moments but enough to make Doree feel that her children have become unmentionable, or clumped together in death. Nameless. She feels that there has been a terrible kind of ‘forgetting’ of her children as they really were, they’ve vanished behind a newspaper headline, a kind of second death. Munro is a master of the small heartbreaking touches, Doree visits her children’s killer the first time just to hear their names spoken aloud. Munro doesn’t shy away from showing us the self-blame, the shame, the complex ties of the abused to the abuser, above all Doree’s absolute isolation, “Nobody who knew about it would want me around. All I can do is remind people of what nobody can stand to be reminded of.”

Munro feeds us the clues slowly, evoking the insidious messages given in an abusive relationship, how slowly it starts until the victim is quite entangled, “She was even allowed to laugh with him, as long as she wasn’t the one who started the laughing.” And, “He got worse, gradually. No direct forbidding, but more criticism.” Doree’s husband prefers to ensure she sabotages herself, and like any good dictator wants to control every aspect of her life, up to and including what she wears. He wants her to be a blank sheet for him to write himself on, until even her clothes (perhaps the most basic unit of self expression) make her “a reflection less of the way she was than the way he wanted to see her.” And as with any power grab there is a struggle over Voice: who gets to speak, when, and with what authority. And the answer for Doree is little, rarely, and with no authority at all. For her there is how he said to feel then there’s how she felt, and those two things become like separate countries as Doree’s slowly silenced by her abuser. At his most dangerous her husband controls the entire  narrative of their lives together, he says how it is and how it was. This culminates in him feeding the newspaper a slur about Doree as a mother, quietly transferring the blame for his murders. She wants to see him, at least in part, “to make him take it back.” The words matter. Worst of all, Doree visits him out of an almost primitive desire to retrace her steps, to find what she lost, where and how and Munro lets her readers softly hold their breaths for Doree. Allows us to see what Doree cannot: that her secrecy, her shame around the abuse leaves her ever more vulnerable to the further manipulations of a stone cold killer. Vulnerable enough that his cultish beliefs and delusions can take a further grip on her psyche and we can feel some sympathy for Mrs Sands here: what chance does therapy have against a belief system which tells a grieving mother that her children live and may be returned to her? Doree knows, deep down, that her abuser’s magical beliefs are not true and yet … And yet. We see her almost rationally considering taking on his madness. That it might be a more bearable, liveable strategy than what she knows to be real and true. That madness might be necessary even.

Ironically it is another crisis which appears to pull Doree back from this outer edge. A traffic accident on her bus route home and a youth hangs precariously between breathing and not breathing by a ditch. Doree has some basic resuscitation training. Here Munro, writing at the height of her considerable powers, evokes every atom of the pained wonder of the boy simply existing at the very edge between life and death, and with the grieving mother beside him, breathing for him for a while. We can almost feel Doree’s awe at the first breath the boy can take without her, and his next breath and the next one. The wonder too as Doree begins to understand this breath to be also her own breath, and precious. And so Doree’s story begins and ends with a bus route. In the beginning Doree has a series of interlinked buses to navigate, to get to where she thinks she needs to be and the complexity of her personal arrangements at the outset serve as a distraction from the gaping hole at the heart of her life, her grief. At the end of the story, Doree tells the impatient bus driver to go on without her, and as its lights blink away in the distance she finds something essential. It feels like one more of Munro’s small miracles when Doree who once stuffed grass, sheets, towels, in her mouth in an attempt to stop feeling, and who could not cry because the problem was not in her eyes but in her stomach (she could heave but not make tears) is now able to slip beyond the alienating world around her to find something that she needs to go on: a sense of the precariousness and preciousness of life, including her own:

“Be quiet, be quiet, she wanted to tell them. It seemed to her that silence was necessary, that everything in the boy’s body had to concentrate … Breathe.”

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Jo Ely

Described as "an intelligent, creative, imaginative, original writer" by Guardian Book of the Year author Trevor Byrne, Jo Ely has been Shortlisted for the Fish International Short Story Prize and has had a short story selected for an anthology edited by New York Times Notable Book of the Year author Sandra Tyler (Woven Tale Press, US ed. 2016). Jo has published short stories, children's books and written interviews with writers for the Woven Tale Press. She also reviews for the world's first online Empathy Library. 'Stone Seeds' is Jo's first novel, published by Urbane Publications (Amazon.co.uk).

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