Dear Life by Alice Munro
I realised, upon sitting down to read Dear Life, that I had actually started to read it a while ago: the opening story, ‘To Reach Japan’, simply hadn’t appealed to me and so I had lost motivation to go any further. I wonder whether this is fairly common, since areaderofliterature mentions a similar situation in her review of Munro’s Runaway. Nevertheless, I eventually came back to the collection of short stories and I am very glad that I did: I enjoyed my second attempt at the book, admiring Munro’s strength of writing and connecting with the characters in a way I was not expecting.
As the title suggests, this is a collection dedicated to life, with loss and relationships key themes permeating the stories. The blurb describes Munro’s intent as documenting ‘how dangerous and strange ordinary life can be’. Although some stories include unusual or traumatic events, that is never the overall theme of the story; these are very much stories of the everyday, feeling real because they could very well be about your next-door neighbour, or that person you see on the bus every day. On the surface, perhaps, these stories do not look like they have much in common: some stories revolve around one moment, others span a whole lifetime; some stories are set in the early twentieth century, others in contemporary times; some stories feature the very old, others the very young. Yet they have a cohesive sense of ordinary people living out their lives and relating to each other.
Leaving aside the final four stories for now, my favourite stories of the collection were ‘Gravel’, ‘Pride’, and ‘In Sight of the Lake’, and I enjoyed them all for very different reasons. ‘Gravel’ taps into a major area of interest for me: the idea of childhood memories, and the unreliable perspective we have on looking back at life-altering events which happened when we are young. Inevitably, where there are childhood memories, there are gaps, assumptions made, and things which we didn’t then understand. ‘Gravel’ is a wonderfully introspective example of this, as an adult attempts to sort out their complicated family history and understand why they, and others around them, did the things they did. ‘Pride’, on the other hand, appealed to me in its description of the friendship between two unlikely characters who are drawn together by nature of being outsiders. One of the things I appreciated about this story was the emphasis on the friendship between these two characters; other writers might have taken the narrative in a romantic direction but Munro chooses to develop the narrative in a more ambiguous, complex relationship which was refreshing to read. Whilst I enjoyed those two stories, that is not necessarily the word I would use to describe my emotions as I read ‘In Sight of the Lake’; as someone for whom narratives about dementia hit a little too close to home, it was uncomfortable reading. However, it was a brilliantly crafted story, and the details were fantastic.
For me, though, the stories which stood out in the collection were the final four which form the ‘Finale’. Munro describes them as ‘the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life’ (p.255). These four stories explore Munro’s relationship with her parents and the place in which she grew up; they are engaging, atmospheric, and nostalgic stories of childhood moments which have lingered long in memory, despite their seeming insignificance to an outsider. My favourite story of the entire book is the best example of this: ‘Night’ describes a period of Munro’s life in which she was struggling with insomnia, her subsequent night wanderings, and a conversation with her father which enabled her to sleep once more. There is nothing out of the ordinary about this story, no indication that her father would remember the incident, no outward reason why it should have stuck in Munro’s memory. Yet we all have stories like this: moments of our childhood which seem outwardly insignificant but were crucial moments in our understanding of our own identity.
There were, as with any collection of short fiction, some stories I did not enjoy: the first two stories of the collection simply did not appeal to me, and I struggled to engage with them much like I found in Runaway. However, overall it was an enjoyable collection by an accomplished writer. I think my enthusiasm would have been tempered slightly had the ‘Finale’ section not been included; these were far and away the strongest stories of the collection and definitely the ones which I will be going back and rereading. Munro is known for being an exemplary short fiction writer, and I think this collection shows her strengths much better than Runaway did.