In my opinion it is a necessary characteristic of good fiction that it deals with life and explores human nature in its many facets instead of simply recounting a series of events. To look deep into the souls of their heroes and heroines some writers fill huge tomes, while others need just a few pages to show the emotional ups and downs of a protagonist struggling with the vicissitudes of life. The book that I chose for today’s review is a good example for a short story collection bursting with characters who feel so human and real that it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to meet them in flesh and blood someday although only a limited part of their self is actually revealed. The focus of Dear Life by Alice Munro is on moments in life that have a lasting impact for one reason or another.
Alice Munro, maiden name Alice Ann Laidlaw, was born in Wingham, Ontario, Canada, in July 1931. After high school a two-year scholarship allowed her to study at the University of Western Ontario majoring in journalism, later English. In 1950 her first short story appeared in the university’s undergraduate literary magazine, but although she continued writing and publishing stories the following eighteen years were dedicated above all to the family and as from 1963 to her husband’s bookshop in Victoria, British Columbia. Only in 1968 the author’s first short story collection titled Dance of the Happy Shades came out and won the Governor’s General Award right away. Heaps of individual short stories printed in important literary journals and thirteen original collections, all of them highly successful, followed until 2013 when Alice Munro received the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her mastery as a short story writer”. The most notable of her works probably are Lives of Girls and Women (1971), Who Do You Think You Are? (1978; published under the title The Beggar Maid outside Canada), Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001; also reprinted as Away From Her), The View from Castle Rock (2006), and Dear Life (2012). Alice Munro lives in Clinton, Ontario, Canada.
The fourteen stories of Dear Life show a kaleidoscope of ordinary women, men and children as they peopled small town neighbourhoods in Canada, above all around Lake Huron up to Toronto, between the years of World War II and the 2010s. They all deal best they can with the great themes of life, namely love, sex, illness, old age and death. There are the detached ones like the ex-soldier in Train who has just returned from overseas after World War II and lets himself drift through life avoiding to tie himself down, or the harelipped accountant of Pride who rather sells his house than to allow his sisterly friend to move in with him when they are getting old. Others like the poetry-writing house-wife and mother Greta in To Reach Japan and the teacher Mary just out of training college in Amundsen unexpectedly experience what sexual liberation means, while the narrator’s Aunt Dawn in Haven gets tired of putting her husband’s needs and happiness first after years of marriage. The protagonists of Leaving Maverley and Gravel have to come to terms with the actual loss of loved ones, whereas the seventy-one-year old narrator of Dolly just imagines that her eighty-three-year old partner could leave her for the flame of his youth whom fate has blown into their house as a door-to-door seller of cosmetics. Wealthy Corrie and her married lover, on the other hand, find that the death of the woman who blackmailed them for decades doesn’t change anything between them. In the Sight of the Lake is the story of an elderly woman with a seemingly clear mind who in fact turns out to be drifting in her memory because she suffers from dementia, maybe Alzheimer’s Disease. And in the grand Finale comprising The Eye, Night, Voices, and the title-giving story Dear Life the author herself makes an appearance sharing some childhood memories with her readers.
As the title of Dear Life suggests, the underlying theme of this short story collection is nothing more and nothing less than everyday life as it oscillates between joy and disappointment, happiness and grief, birth and death. And it is about the choices that people make all the time, be it consciously or instinctively. Several stories also show how the living conditions of women and their role models have changed since the end of World War II when the author herself was coming of age and how growing old inevitably affects our relations as well as our ways of life. The style which Alice Munro employs to tell her stories is pleasantly modest and unpretentious for the work of a contemporary writer, moreover a very popular one who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Their tone is quiet, gentle and to a certain degree contemplative, no matter if they are written in first or third person, no matter if they are fictitious or overtly autobiographical like the final four. Descriptions of scenery are vivid and rich in images to the point of being poetic although the author’s language remains simple and concise even in such passages. The stories are easy to read, but they certainly are much deeper than they may seem to a superficial reader.
I enjoyed all stories of Dear Life by Alice Munro very much although it is true that some of them are rather sad or even depressing. Reading the book I often felt like listening to a grandmother from the old times talking melancholically about the long life that she has already lived. According to the author, only the final four stories are in fact autobiographical, and yet, all of them have the aura of personal experience about them. Before this collection I read only one other work of the author, namely The Bear Came Over the Mountain which Sarah Polley made into the film Away from Her (»»» read my review). The stories of Dear Life are in the same line and I gladly recommend them.
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