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Alice Munro: Dear Life 

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You may find it a bit excessive to stay up all night to hear the announcement of the Nobel Prize winner for literature. But that is what I did. My personal favorite, Philip Roth, did not win, yet again, and we can talk now about the phenomenon: “why didn’t Roth get it?” instead of “will Roth get it?” Other strong contenders this year included a Japanese literary superstar Haruki Murakami and Bob Dylan. Yes, that Bob Dylan. At the end, the Prize went to Alice Munro, a Canadian "master of the contemporary short story" – so said the judging committee of the Swedish Academy. A couple of years ago, it was said by a member of the same committee that American literature is “too insular”. That may be true, but it is hardly a reason to pass over some great writers coming from these shores (and from our Northern Neighbor, of course).

Munro’s setting in her collection of short stories Dear Life is the country and small towns of southwestern Ontario. Her characters venture as far as Toronto and Vancouver, always to return to their ancestral farms and villages; their lakes and creeks. Any Michigander who has spent a weekend up north will not have a hard time picturing the panoramas in Munro’s stories.

A female narrator tells most of the stories in this book; men stories revolve around women in their lives. Since Murno is only the 13th woman to win a Nobel for literature, there has been some chatter about the status of women in serious Literature. Without a doubt, Munro has earned her place -- you won’t find her work in the romance section of a local used books store.

The Second World War lurks behind every story in Dear Life. Young men drafted and sent overseas; families left behind to deal with the food rationing from a landscape of a community of Protestant restraint, if not religious zeal. It depicts an era in which ministers have lost their faith, but the bounds of Christian morals still hold -- or at least it should.

Love and romance exist in Dear Life inasmuch as they help us understand the trajectory our heroines’ lives have taken. And when heartbreaks and infidelity occur, one would strain to talk of passion. Munro seems to be more interested in companionship of the men and women within the stories.

With Munro’s characters, there is no excessive psychologizing. In Dear Life, sudden twists and turns of the plot take us by surprise, as do its protagonists, notwithstanding whether or not the same protagonists cause said surprises. Lives change and characters are formed in ways that cannot be predicted. The women in these stories are not passive objects of unfortunate circumstance; rather, they make their circumstances work for them in surprising ways, especially for mid-century rural women.

Trains feature prominently throughout the stories, not only as a period mode of transportation, but also a way for Munro’s characters to cement the changes in their lives. In one of the stories, a war returnee jumps off the train before his last stop, to start life anew with a stranger. Later, when this new life does not turn out as expected (hint: something to do with his fear of commitment), Munro backtracks to tell us about a young lady waiting on that same train station for him, many years ago. Trains carry women to and from their real or imaginary lovers; men who they will see again, some years later, on a street, in a different city, whose presence will stir in them nostalgia and that brooding demon asking, what ifs...

Munro does not dupe us with the sentimental. In what is probably the most surprising and sad story in the book, an elderly lady struggles with mild dementia. In a narration both dreamlike and realistic, Munro entraps her protagonist in an assisted living home -- a twist of events that seem semi-banal. Dear Life is not about what a life should be, it’s about what life inevitably is.

Dear Life, Munro’s past year collection of stories, is supposed to be her last. She made it clear earlier this year that she does not plan to publish anymore, but will her Nobel Prize have an influence on this decision? In a post-award interview Munro said that she might change her mind -- let’s hope she does. | RDW

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