Master storyteller Alice Munro has a new collection of short stories out that is a must read. Not only does it have the short stories filled with Munro’s well-crafted prose, detailing life in rural Canada, the collection also has an additional four works that Munro says “are not quite stories [but] form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not sometimes, entirely so in fact.” She adds, “I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.” The disclaimer kept me from reading the last four pieces, at least for one day, but once I read them, I found them just as enjoyable as the first ten stories that make up Munro’s Dear Life.
A few highlights from the book include “To Reach Japan,” a story about Greta, a married poet, who is gets drunk at a writer’s party and is rescued by a journalist. She takes a train ride with her daughter, a mere child, and gets drunk again, this time with romantic and unexpected consequences. On the train, Greta realizes how tenuous connections can be, particularly when she crosses the space from one train car to the other: “You always hurried through these passages, where the banging and swaying reminded you how things were put together in a way that seemed not so inevitable after all. Almost casual, yet in too much of a hurry, that banging and swaying” (25).
In “Amundsen,” Vivien Hyde takes on a job at a home for children with Tuberculosis. She meets two peculiar characters, a chatty Cathy named Mary and Dr. Fox, who tries clumsily to woo Vivien, and who often speaks rudely and harshly to Mary (whose mother works at the TB hospital/home). “Amundsen” is filled with Munro’s narrative eye for the minute details that linger with her characters. On a date with Dr. Fox, Vivien observes his hands at work: “He washed the dishes, I dried. He put a dish towel round my waist to protect my dress. When the ends were efficiently tied he laid his hand against my upper back. Such firm pressure, fingers separated… When I went to bed that night I could still feel that pressure” (51).
“Leaving Maverley,” “Corrie,” and “Dolly” narrate the lives of adulterous women, indeed women who find no qualms about having and enjoying sex or love with men who are not their husbands. In typical Munro-style, the detailed writing reveals each character’s motivation, drawing understanding from the reader for these women, even leading us to find in these love affairs what is clearly lacking in the women’s marriages or lives. I found myself enjoying reading the affairs, particularly because they may be temporary, and I found myself being driven to read because of the tension created from the possibilities of being caught. These stories were definitely page-turners.
The story that stays with me the most (nearly every detail) is “Gravel.” The unreliable narrator vaguely remembers the year her mother, her sister Caro, and their dog Blitzee moved in with her mother’s boyfriend Neal. Neal’s trailer sits near a gravel pit, where teh bus picks up and drops off Caro. The narrator remembers sweetly that “Blitzee was always waiting by the road for [Caro] to come home” (95). There is a baby, too, Neal’s and the mother’s son named Brent; the two sisters are said to be very happy about this new arrival. The bliss of this new, makeshift family doesn’t last. One or more of them soon leave the family in some dark, mysterious way that leaves the narrator, who was a child then, working hard to atone for the events of her childhood. Perhaps the most touching and heartbreaking story in the collection, “Gravel” reveals how the emotions of loss stay rooted deep within us and last long after the memory of that loss has all but faded away.
Some of the details in the stories can be found again in Munro’s nonfiction section called “Finale.” This section reveals that some of those details — like reading The Magic Mountain at an early age — come right out of Munro’s own life (of course, and in spite her disclaimer). Each nonfiction piece has its theme, the last one, titled “Dear Life, being on forgiveness. As Munro reflects on her decision not to attend her mother’s funeral, she writes, “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.” Such insight into the power of moving on that makes up this process we call life, this dear life.