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Review: Alice Munro's Dear Life

Published October 13th 2012 by Douglas Gibson Books

Alice Munro is widely considered as the most distinguished short story of the day; she's been awarded the Man Booker International Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature this year. Pretty damn cool. It's hard to know where to begin for newbies because she's had such a long and prolific career. Dear Life: Stories, which she has stated to be the last collection of her career, actually came up as the one that should be read first. It's a collection of 14 short stories and she also refers to the last four as: "“autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact...I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.”

I'll start by saying that there is a theme that runs throughout, as with all her books it seems. First, they're generally set in a small town in her native Canada in the postwar period. In Dear Life in particular, I think she explores 2 main themes: (1) the lasting impact of critical events in our lives and how hopeless it is for us to change the effects of these circumstances, and (2) the triviality or sometimes meaningless passage of time. She also discusses the issue of gender quite a lot in these stories - or how gender forces women often submissive role in society.

Some stories that stood out to me are: 

Alice Munro: “We say of some things that they can't be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do-we do it all the time.”

  1. Letters from Japan: A young mother brings says goodbye to her husband for a short period of time. She finds her life to be unfulfilled but can't attribute it to any particular reason, which manifests in an inexplicable affair with a stranger on a train and uncontrollable lust for a man that she met only once. 
  2. Gravel: Two sisters are adapting to their parents' recently failed marriage, which means moving into a trailer next to a gravel pit with her mother's new boyfriend. It's implied that the older sister has a difficult time adjusting to this life and the treatment that their father is receiving. Tragedy follows and the younger sister must live with the repercussions.
  3. Amundsen: A young woman moves from Toronto to work in the countryside at a hospital for patients of tuberculosis. There, she becomes engaged to a doctor who is emotionally oppressive and treats her with detached pragmatism. So the reader is not surprised when he suddenly breaks off their engagement while the main character tries to understand why it's happened. 

Munro does all this with an almost cold detachment, as both dialogue and general writing style are simple and straight to the point. She never feels the need to explain things; in one story, a young man coming home from war hops off the train before his stop, where he's supposed to meet his fiancee. No explanation as to why he did that - from which point the story progresses, which is completely unrelated from this initial event. It's interesting because readers say that she revolutionised the short story by fitting an entire novel into a few pages (although apparently more characteristic of her earlier work). I do agree with that because, while she leaves a lot for readers to interpret themselves, the necessary elements of a novel is there in every story.  

I really tried to like this book but I just couldn't. Maybe it's because I'm not used to reading short stories or because I don't want to view life through the lens of incestuous thoughts, adultery, and sexist bigotry. Either way, the book feels quite tedious and I definitely had a one story max rule. It's weird how the stories felt emotionally draining yet nothing seems to happen and some stories just seem to drag. It doesn't help that you're constantly on the lookout for symbolism or emotional enlightenment because of the author's prestige. I'm probably going to wait a while before reading another one of her collections.