The main characters in Alice Munro's mesmerizing stories, mostly women, are an unprepossessing lot: librarians, eccentric spinsters, seamstresses, all of them denizens of small, drab, Canadian towns. But invariably, Munro pulls a switch, something like that old movie cliche where the mousy heroine removes her glasses, undoes her hair and reveals herself a beauty. In Munro's case, however, the revelation always amounts to more than a matter of looks. And more than just the simple-minded platitude that all people are interesting if only you take the time to get to know them. Munro's women can be dull. But they are rarely passive and never uninteresting. Chafing against repressive, imprisoning circumstances, they manage to kindle unpredictable outcomes that resonate with a peculiar yet satisfying rightness.
Munro's wonderfully compressed tales are not easily summarized. Each of the stories in Open Secrets (293 pages. Knopf. $23), her latest and most accomplished collection, contains enough Dickensian detail to flesh out a lesser writer's novel. In "Carried Away," for example, the town librarian is left at the altar by a man later killed in an accident at the local piano factory. The woman subsequently marries the factory owner and then, years afterward, widowed, runs into her old flame. The encounter -- real? imagined? -- undoes the woman with the realization that "It was anarchy she was up against -- a devouring muddle. Sudden holes and impromptu tricks and radiant vanishing consolations." Hacking up her chronologies, introducing narrators midway in stories who contradict everything that's been said, Munro plunges her people into unsteady circumstances where well-ordered existence can go off the rails in an instant. But there is nothing fickle or cruel in these stories. Munro leaves no doubt that she yearns as mightily as her characters do for "a destiny to submit to . . . something that claims us, anything, instead of such flimsy choices, arbitrary days."
These are, for the most part, dark stories full of trouble. The only consolation they offer is the considerable artistry with which they are constructed. In these tales, there is a mounting sense of perilousness. The bold assurance with which Munro works carries with it an implied sense of risk. It is a challenge so seductive, with everything on the line, that you can't help but take her up on it. So, every time you egg her on. And every time she pulls it off, leaving us slack-jawed with wonder and filled with delight.