Canadian short story Alice Munro has pipped literay titans to the race for the £60,000 Man Booker International prize.
The 77-year-old writer, whose win places her still higher on her ascent to what fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood in 2008 described as an elevation to "international literary sainthood", was picked from a line-up of towering talent that pitted Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa against the Nobel laureate VS Naipaul, Australia's Peter Carey and the UK's contender, the Scottish author James Kelman.
Judge Jane Smiley, the Pulitzer prize-winning American novelist, admitted that selecting a winner from the 14 long-listed authors – who are assessed on their bodies of work and contribution they have made to "fiction on the world stage" – had been a challenge, but that Munro "just won us over".
"Her work is practically perfect. Any writer has to gawk when reading her because her work is very subtle and precise," Smiley said. "Her thoughtfulness about every subject is so concentrated."
Munro's quiet stories of small-town life have won her a host of literary awards, although the Nobel prize for literature, for which she is a perennial contender, still eludes her.
But she has nonetheless spoken of her desire to write a great novel. "I'm always trying. Between every book I think, well now, it's time to get down to the serious stuff," she told the Guardian newspaper in 2003. But Smiley said Munro managed to do more in the 30 pages of her short stories than some novelists do in an entire book.
"Her commitment to the story as a form is very impressive. Lesser writers would have produces a good or mediocre novel, or three or four, over the years. The fact she decided this is what she was going to explore is very impressive, especially in the Anglo writing world, which is inimical to the shorter form," agreed Smiley's fellow judge, the novelist and critic Amit Chaudhuri. "She's wonderful – the way she brings in memory, the way she handles language and narrative …The level of craftsmanship involved demands attention."
Munro's short story collections, from her acclaimed debut in 1968 with "Dance of the Happy Shades: and its masterful handling of adolescent preoccupations to 2006's fictionalised family history “The View from Castle Rock”, have generally focused on small-town life in rural Ontario.
On this apparently narrow canvas, with its finely calibrated social nuances, Munro paints a profoundly
resonant human comedy taking in all the grand themes of love, life and death.
"Although her style seems simple, sinuous, easy to read, she's thought about each subject so much that you feel like you've had a real immersion in a particular subject," said Smiley, pointing to her story,
" The Turkey Season", about a girl gutting turkeys in a factory. "It gives you such a sense of everything about that turkey factory – where it is, what she's doing, the social groups. That depth is what you'd usually expect to get in a novel, but Alice Munro gives us it in 20 to 30 pages."
Munro is the third recipient of the £60,000 Man Booker International prize, following Ismail Kadare in 2005 (when she was shortlisted for the first time) and Chinua Achebe in 2007. The author said she was "totally amazed and delighted" to win the award, which will be presented to her on 25 June at Trinity College in Dublin.
Munro's work is often compared with the great short story writers. For example, the American writer Cynthia Ozick called Munro "our Chekhov." In Munro stories, as in Chekov's, plot is secondary and "little happens."
As with Chekov, Garan Holcombe notes: "All is based on the epiphanic moment, the sudden enlightenment, the concise, subtle, revelatory detail." Munro's work deals with "love and work, and the failings of both. She shares Chekov’s obsession with time and our much-lamented inability to delay or prevent its relentless movement forward."
A frequent theme of her work—particularly evident in her early stories—has been the dilemmas of a girl coming of age and coming to terms with her family and the small town she grew up in.
In works such as "Hateship", "Friendship", "Courtship", "Loveship", "Marriage" and "Runaway", she has shifted her focus to the travails of middle age, of women alone and of the elderly. It is a mark of her style for characters to experience a revelation that sheds light on, and gives meaning to, an event.
Munro's lucid language and command of detail gives her fiction a "remarkable precision," as Helen Hoy observes.
Now living in Clinton, Ontario, near Lake Huron, Munro is the author of 11 short story collections, and one "novel", "Lives of Girls and Women" – which is generally agreed to be more accurately described as a series of linked short stories.
Her latest collection, Too Much Happiness, will be published this October.