Review by Geetha Kulkarni
Amid authors who are full of bluster and swagger, comes a quiet one, one whose stories are slow, languid, about nothing special and yet stories that touch deeply the fabric of our everyday lives. Such a one is the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature – Canadian author Alice Munro. In Dear Life, her latest collection of short stories and perhaps her last, she writes everyday stories about everyday people in everyday language. She gently and quietly tells the stories of these ordinary people as they live out their lives in rural Ontario. Ontario is only a backdrop in which place Munro explores the human condition, so these stories will resonate with readers everywhere. Her characters suffer disappointments, fear commitment, feel jealousy, worry about loss of memory and aging; husbands and wives cheat, men and women live and cope with their disabilities… the stories are sadly beautiful. Each story is about 20 or 30 pages, in that short span through a story that seems deceptively simple Munro packs the depth of a novel.
Her characters are often flawed as real people are but she makes no moral judgements against her characters. Her language is simple, unadorned and unpretentious. Many stories have unexpected endings. The stories do not always tie up neatly in the end leaving the reader to wonder what happens next as in Leaving Maverley, do Leah and Ray get together? Or To Reach Japan does Greta go back to her husband?
There are some recurring themes e.g.fear of intimacy and commitment – in Train, as soon as Belle tells him that she was sexually assaulted by her father and that he then killed himself, it is all too much for Jackson and he abandons her without even telling her, in Gravel, Neal leaves after Caro drowns, does not come to the funeral and does not even wait for his baby to be born; in Amundsen, the doctor leaves Vivien at the very last minute after promising to marry her.
Choices and their consequences is another recurring theme. In Gravel a decision to sit on the porch for a few extra minutes leads to a lifetime of guilt, in To Reach Japan Greta is left with a choice between her responsibility to her family and her own desire for excitement and adventure. Whatever the choice made, there is a price to be paid.
There is plenty of social commentary in the stories which are set between the 1920s and the 1970s. Women are not seen as completely capable – for truly reliable service it was still believed you need a man; in The Eye, when Sadie is killed in an accident outside a dance hall – a girl without a boyfriend going to dances on foot…it was asking for trouble; in Leaving Maverley, the girl working at the theatre has to quit because in those days a woman had to get out of the public eye before she began to show her pregnancy. We see society changing in some of the stories set in later years. In Haven the two sisters represent the change. Dawn is traditional; no purpose is greater than creating a haven for her husband. Women with any passion other than the passion to please their husbands spell trouble as does Mona Cassel who chooses to play the violin in a symphony orchestra. Dawn’s sister represents change. She does not consider motherhood her primary responsibility and goes to Africa to teach, leaving her daughter behind with her sister. But even in the few pages of the short story Haven you see Dawn beginning to transfer, to rebel against the domineering authority of her husband. In Corrie, women come to a funeral in pants rather than in their best dresses, women are driving cars in some stories but the only professions we see women in, in these stories are teaching and nursing. Parents are still looking as marriage as the most suitable outcomes for their daughter’s lives.
The last four stories are autobiographical. Munro prefaces these ‘works’ by saying that they “are not quite stories” because they are “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, in fact.” The reader sees a different parenting style than we use today. In The Eye when her mother takes her to the funeral of a much loved nanny, there is no attempt to prepare the child for the visit as we would want to do today, no grief counselling, children just learnt how to cope with life, through life itself. In Night when she confesses to her father that she has been unable to sleep because she has visions of killing her sister, he calmly tells her without any sort of alarm, “people have those kinds of thoughts sometimes”… “there’s no real worry about it, no more than a dream”. He does not blame her or wonder at her, no appointment with a psychiatrist. He had taught the child that people have thoughts they “would sooner not have. It happens in life”. And yet on another occasion this same caring father spanked the child with a belt.
This is my first Alice Munro experience. Alice Munro reminded me of Elizabeth Strout, whose Olive Kitteridge I had enjoyed reading a couple of years ago. I enjoyed Dear Life immensely. Each story needs to be read, savoured, thought about and re-read. Each reading will expose more of the depth of the story. I am sure to read more of Alice Munro.