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November 29, 2012

“Dear Life”

by Anne Paddock

Alice Munro recently published a new collection of short stories entitled Dear Life. A brilliant anthology of 14 short stories with mostly single word titles that signify a key event, description or a character in a story, Dear Life is really two books in one:  ten fictional short stories told from the perspective of characters striving to make sense of people in their lives, random events, and the decisions made; and four stories collectively called Finale that Munro says”form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, thought 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.”

Most of Munro’s short stories take place in Ontario,Canada and don’t follow a natural chronological timeline. The story may begin with a meaningful event – a husband and father saying goodbye to a wife and daughter as they depart on a train as in To Reach Japan – and then move to the past to explain the events leading up to the train departure followed by the events that occur on the train and afterwards.  This is one of the beauties of a Munro short story in that the events unfold from an introspective narrator moving back and forth through time.

In many of Munro’s short stories, a character struggles to make sense of a random event. In Amundsen a young teacher at a tuberculosis sanitarium engages in an affair with an older doctor and in Corrie a woman embarks on an affair with a married man who when threatened with blackmail, chooses an unusual course of action that fails to bring clarity to their relationship until years later.

In other stories, the adult narrator refers back to childhood as in Gravel when a woman recalls a traumatic event at age nine that shaped her life forever. In her struggle to make sense of what happened and her role in the tragedy, she is told:

The thing is to be happy….No matter what. Just try that. You can. It gets to be easier and easier. It’s nothing to do with circumstances. You wouldn’t believe how good it is. Accept everything and then tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you’re just there, going along easy in the world.

But, this is much easier said than done because anyone inclined towards introspective thought cannot make the choice to be happy. Their natural fallback is to dwell on the past – to remember, to analyze – in the hopes of making peace within their soul.

Haven is told from the perspective of a young girl whose parents go off to Ghana to teach school – leaving her with a maternal aunt and uncle whose marriage speaks volumes to a child who is not used to seeing a woman whose life revolves around a man, even when he isn’t home. Munro often writes about a child set apart from the rest of the world – not because the child is physically or mentally different although this may eventually become the case but because of the decisions parents made in raising that child. In Pride, a child is given an unusual name, sent to a private school, and has a “strange hesitation and lightness about her, as if she were waiting for life to begin” and yet she wants what everyone covets: love, friendship, and acceptance.

Flight is another common theme of Munro’s short stories and in Leaving Maverley, a gentle soul of a man recalls a young girl desperate to flee the town she grew up in only to return years later. In his view flight was “….a waste of time, the waste of life, by all people all scrambling for excitement and paying no attention to anything that mattered.”  In Train, a young man returning from the battlefields of World War II, decides to jump off a train instead of returning home as if “jumping off the train was supposed to be a cancellation”  and carry him to a new life.

Two short stories are told from the perspective of elderly women: one who is struggling with “mind” problems in In Sight of the Lake and another who struggles to make sense of her long marriage when an old flame of her 83-year-old husband comes back into their life in Dolly.

Most telling of all though are the four short autobiographical stories at the end of the book. In Eye, Munro writes of coming into a sense of self and accepting her own feelings as separate from what she is told to feel by her mother – a powerful differentiation for any child growing up.  And in Night, Munro recalls the unusual compassion her father – who regularly beat her – showed when she admitted having moments of madness not easily explained away. Voices is the story of a young girl who hears men speak with kindness and compassion to a woman injured by the words of women – and is startled because until then Munro had only heard the harsh voices of women who judge and speak cruelly of themselves, their children, friends, relatives, and strangers.

The title of the book – Dear Life – is also the title of the last story in which the author recalls her childhood home and the struggles her parents endured – her mother’s miscarriages, the failure of her father’s business, the early onset of Parkinson’s Disease in her mother’s body, and her mother’s attempt to explain the love she had for her daughter in a childhood story that had likely been embellished through the years. Although Munro’s mother did not appear to be introspective, Munro realizes “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.”

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