Munro, Alice. Dear Life.

NY: Knopf, 2012.

Munro is one of the three or four most talented and most reliably enjoyable writers of short fiction in English since World War II, and she has a whole shelf of awards and prizes to prove it. And this twelfth volume of stories demonstrates that the previous eleven weren’t just flukes. Nearly all of her work is set in the small Canadian towns around the Great Lakes, an area with which she is intimately familiar, and they mostly feature ordinary people from all across the social spectrum just trying to get through life. This is chamber music, not symphonies or marching brass bands. And the reader can learn quite a lot just by watching and listening.

Munro has quite a range of subjects and approaches, too. “To Reach Japan,” for instance, concerns a young poet-mother’s flight across the continent by train, away from a reliable but unexciting engineer husband and in search of a reunion with the older journalist who once rescued her from a literary house party. There’s not really a beginning and end here. It’s more an extended snapshot from a not entirely successful search for happiness. “Amundsen,” on the other hand, is narrated by a young college graduate from Toronto come to teach at a childrens’ TB sanitarium out in the cold woods during the last year of World War II. (Not that she tells you that right out. As in most of Munro’s writing, the reader has to do a little work, too, picking up the clues.) It begins as she waits for a ride at the train station and ends as she takes the train back to the big city, and in between she has experienced six months of snow, adolescents with no hope, a local teenager with a boisterous personality, and possibly love with the sanitarium’s surgeon. Or at least she hopes that’s what it was. Munro is also always very good at descriptions: “The frozen lake not level but mounded along the shore, as if the waves had turned to ice in the act of falling.”

“Gravel” concerns sibling relationships, both with each other and with their mother, and what can happen when not everyone can adapt to radical changes in the family. In “Haven,” an adolescent girl has to spend a year with her controlling uncle and always-yielding aunt while her own freethinking parents are off working in Africa. This gives her the opportunity to explore strange country herself, as she observes family dynamics of a sort she never could have imagined. There are some great lines here, too. After describing her aunt’s tea cakes and shortbreads created for company, she comments that “I myself had never seen the like. My parents gave the kind of parties where people ate chili out of clay pots.” “Pride” is a very different sort of story, and a very good one, about a once-wealthy woman and a lone (but not necessarily lonely) man with a repaired harelip and their distant and then close relationship over the decades from the Depression to nearly the present day. And they travel from separate houses to two adjacent apartments, which is a nice touch. The narrator’s voice this time is determinedly lower-middle-class — and also male, which is unusual for Munro. “Corrie” is another unusual story, about a wealthy young woman who has a brief, unplanned affair with a married architect hired to replace the church steeple. Then they’re found out by her maid, who blackmails them on the installment plan. And then it becomes a lingering affair stretching over the years, and finally the resilient Corrie arrives at a surprising resolution to their problem. Really, this one will catch you off-guard.

One of the best in the collection, and the most complete as a “story,” is “Leaving Maverley,” which has a relatively large cast of characters: The night cop who marries a woman who may have left her husband for him, and then has to watch as her health declines; the teenager from an almost cloistered fundamentalist family who takes a job selling tickets at the town’s movie theater, and who has to be careful not to watch the picture or listen to the dialogue; and the town’s new, young minister and the older, much more conservative man he’s replacing. This one is sort of a series of related character portraits and all of them are very nicely done. There are half a dozen more stories here, some of them more closely autobiographical than the others, and all of them are worth reading, and lingering over, and thinking about. Beautiful stuff.

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Published in: on 29 August 2013 at 5:48 am  Leave a Comment  
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