Alice Munro has said in interviews that she once had similar anxieties about short stories - that she spent her 20s fretting about not producing a novel. These days, along with William Trevor, she is one of the grandees of English-language short fiction. Yet people still like to worry about her authority. In truth, there's little substance to these anxieties: she's had an international readership since the 1970s; this year she added the Man Booker International prize to her already substantial collection of awards; and her daughter has published a memoir about being brought up by "an icon". Even so, there's a persistent idea of her as an underpraised housewife-genius from the Canadian backwoods, perhaps because it's easier to talk about the literary politics of being a woman, Canadian or a short-story writer than it is to give a sense of her densely packed but effortless-seeming work.
Born Alice Laidlaw in 1931, Munro grew up in a small town in southwestern Ontario peopled by descendants of Scottish and Irish settlers. (Through her father, she's descended from the Scottish Romantic writer James Hogg.) She quickly got out of there on a scholarship, married a man she met in college and started a family in suburban Vancouver. Then, not long after publishing Lives of Girls and Women (1971), a kind of bildungsroman made of interlinked stories, she got divorced and found herself back in Ontario, where the sexual and social changes in the air did not always fit well with the religious and class assumptions of small-town Canada. But there she stayed, remarrying and, in her writing, addressing the matter of men and women, trouble with children, the deaths of friends and parents. By the early 80s, it was clear that Huron County - with some excursions to the Pacific northwest - had given her all the material she would need.
Munro's localism isn't antiquarian or defensive. Small-town Canada, it turns out, is an ideal place to observe the mysteries of sex and selfhood, of personal formation and deformation. But localism has also insulated her writing from windy notions of universality, giving it a sense of history and a network of social gradations and prohibitions to work with, as well as an understated Gothic turn. Rural or puritanical suspicions of pretension, which often oppress her characters, have left their impress on her writing style, too. Her prose is clean, precise and unmannered; her stories are attentive to emotion but sometimes almost witheringly unsentimental. She's also a storyteller rather than a maker of atmospheric vignettes, not afraid to shift chronology around or have dramatic things happen. In the collections she's published over the past 10 years, she gives the impression of being able to make the form do pretty much anything she wants, and Too Much Happiness is no exception.
"Fiction", for example, seems at first to be a story about Joyce being left by her husband in the 70s. But then the action cuts to the near-present, with the character presiding in grandmotherly style over her second husband's family get-together, being annoyed by Maggie. When she finally gets round to reading Maggie's stories, she sees why the writer seemed nigglingly familiar: she's the daughter of the woman for whom Joyce's first husband left her. What's more, the first story she starts to read - it's called "Kindertotenlieder" - is transparently modelled on Maggie's childhood, in the course of which Joyce taught her music at school and, so Maggie's story recounts, exploited the child's love for her glamorous, freshly husbandless music teacher to prise details of her mother's new domestic setup out of her. Joyce reads on in horror as the child grows up, understands that her innocent love was exploited (though to no great effect), and becomes bitter, "a person never to be fooled again".
"But", Munro writes, "something happens. And here is the surprise ending." The Maggie-figure in the story finds one day that her feelings about that teacher and that time have changed. She realises that her happiness wasn't fraudulent: whatever the teacher's motives, the child singled out for attention experienced love. "It almost seemed as if there must be some random and of course unfair thrift in the emotional housekeeping of the world, if the great happiness - however temporary, however flimsy - of one person could come out of the great unhappiness of another." Joyce is suitably cheered by this conclusion, and Munro could honourably have left the story there. Instead, she gives its tone two further tweaks. First, Joyce queues up to get her copy signed and Maggie doesn't recognise her, indeed she acts as though her story was disposed of long before. Then, having made Joyce depart a bit mawkishly, Munro gives her back her composure: "This might even turn into a funny story that she would tell one day. She wouldn't be surprised."
Laid out in a short summary, the story's workings - the lessons and counter-lessons in fiction-making; the fluent, dramatic changes of perspective; the approach to, and retreat from, generalising wisdom - inevitably seem a bit squashed. On the page, though, they hang together beautifully, without strain; and the same holds true for many of the other pieces in the book. In "Dimensions", one of several stories featuring violent death, Munro arrives at a brilliantly ambiguous emotional transaction between a traumatised woman and the mad husband who killed their children. "Free Radicals", in which a widowed woman with cancer has to deal with a dangerous intruder, turns neatly - perhaps too neatly towards the end - on another deftly handled reversal; while "Wenlock Edge" moves easily from surface realism to a David Lynch-like erotic dreamscape involving enforced nudity, chicken-carving lessons and the poetry of AE Housman.
Many of these new stories have a valedictory feel. "I grew up, and old," one ends. The novella-length title story - which recreates the last days of Sofia Kovalevskaya, the 19th-century Russian mathematician, writer and practical feminist - begins in a graveyard and ends with a litany of deaths and fates. The ageing narrators of the stories of childhood and early adulthood are good on the urgency with which once-discarded memories can come back, "wanting attention, even wanting you to do something about it, though it's plain there is not on this earth a thing to be done". At the same time, we get appealing glimpses of the sardonic girls these people once were, as when the narrator of "Wenlock Edge" watches her bachelor cousin pour scorn on a snobbish warning she's received: "This speech of his, the righteousness and approval lighting his large face, the jerky enthusiasm of his movements, roused the first doubts in me, the first gloomy suspicion that the warning, after all, might have some weight in it."
Munro is famously hard to write about, in part because she's the opposite of the Borges character who joked about belonging not to art but to the history of art. Far from hanging on to the gates of literature, her stories create a powerful illusion of bringing their readers up against unmediated life; and life isn't penetrable by the normal procedures of book reviewing. Is Too Much Happiness as substantial a collection as Runaway (2004) or Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001)? The only sensible answer is to recommend buying all three.