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Book review: Dear Life by Alice Munro

There is so much in Alice Munro’s short stories that it is hard to know where to start in reviewing Dear Life. I don’t usually read short stories as I like to settle into a longer narrative, but from the first story, I was held tightly by the strength of Munro’s words and the worlds she created. They are stories of shame, humiliation, love and rejection.

In To Reach Japan, Munro tells of a train journey a poet, Greta, takes with her daughter. However, an act of carelessness almost costs her everything, causing her to, at least for a while, reconsider her approach to parenting.

In one particular scene, Munro created so much tension that I felt adrenalin rush to my fingers and toes, and I needed a rest after the situation resolved.

Munro writes about Greta’s new dedication to her daughter, Katy, after the incident, and her reflections on her parenting beforehand.

“All of her waking time for these hundreds of miles had been devoted to Katy. She knew that such devotion on her part had never shown itself before. It was true that she had cared for the child, dressed her, fed her, talked to her, during those hours when they were together and Peter was at work. But Greta had other things to do around the house then, and her attention had been spasmodic, her tenderness often tactical.”

Munro is also astute in her observations about both human nature and society, as she wonders at the charismatic man she has met on the train. A fellow traveller says that, unlike most actors when offstage, he is very ‘there’, and present in the moment.

“Greta thought, That’s what I do. I save myself up, most of the time. Careful with Katy, with Peter.

In the decade that they had already entered but that she at least had not taken much notice of, there was going to be a lot of attention paid to this sort of thing. Being there was to mean something it didn’t used to mean. Going with the flow. Giving. Some people were giving, other people were not very giving. Barriers between the inside and outside of your head were to be trampled down. Authenticity required it. Things like Greta’s poems, things that did not flow right out, were suspect, even scorned.”

Other stories include one about a surprising relationship that comes to an abrupt end, and another describes the shocking and inexplicable death of a sibling.

Pride tells of a couple of outcasts who turn to each other for company, but never find a way to make their relationship permanent.

Many are stories of loss, reflecting the unknowability of those with whom we share our lives and affections. In one story, Amundsen, a woman agrees to marry a doctor who suddenly and devastatingly changes his mind.

Munro’s language is gorgeous, and as the woman in Amundsen arrives in her new home by a lake, she writes:

“Everything was austere and northerly, black-and-white under the high dome of clouds.

But the birch bark not white after all as you got closer. Grayish yellow, grayish blue, gray.

So still, so immense and enchantment.”

Another striking story is In Sight of the Lake, in which a woman descents into dementia. It carries a poignancy and sharp sense of loss that is familiar to many of Munro’s story, and I was devastated by the ending.

The book finishes with memories from Munro’s own life, in which she remembers her mother’s illness the story she was told about the unstable woman who lived near her family home when she was a baby.

Dear Life is  infinitely worth reading, and the brilliance of Munro’s writing has changed the way I think about short stories. They are the perfect way to spend a commute, with their punchiness and brevity. Certainly, Munro doesn’t was a word in her stories, gently breaking through the everyday to find the extraordinary.

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