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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Book Review | Dear Life

Book Review | Dear Life

Alice Munro returns with a collection of stories that dazzle with their effortless simplicity

Many of Munro’s tales are set in Ontario, Canada, where she has spent most of her life. Photo: ThinkstockPremium
Many of Munro’s tales are set in Ontario, Canada, where she has spent most of her life. Photo: Thinkstock

Dear Life | Alice Munro

Love and other demons

I think I knew that at heart I was an ageing spinster," said Alice Munro in her Paris Review interview of 1994, referring to the time she wrote one of her early stories, The Day the Asters Bloomed, which was rejected by The New Yorker in the 1950s. Ironically, not only was she just 25 when she wrote this story, but also very much married, a mother, and deeply invested in her young family.

It is a typically cryptic Munro remark and, like a secret key, unlocks the mysterious appeal of her fiction. The world, seen through Munro’s eyes, is not a comforting place, but one that is leavened by a gentle cynicism. It’s like a less convivial Miss Marple watching over an odd cast of characters with clinical interest—curious, amused, but unsurprised. “We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves," Munro writes in the eponymous story in this new collection, “But we do—we do it all the time."

Dear Life: Chatto &Windus, 321 pages, Rs 799
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Dear Life: Chatto &Windus, 321 pages, Rs 799

There is nothing in Dear Life that you wouldn’t expect of a typical Munro collection. Except that of the 14 stories that make up this volume, four are clubbed together in a “Finale" and described by Munro as “the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life". Surprisingly, it is the least satisfying section in the book. These autobiographical musings—describing her parents’ rickety marriage, the conservative and claustrophobic social ambience of her youth, with only local dances to relieve the monotony—lack the brutal focus of the stories, the centripetal force that binds characters and situations firmly to the reader’s consciousness.

World War II, under the shadow of which Munro grew up, provides the context to most of the stories. “The war was on, and it seemed things changed overnight," says the first-person narrator in Pride, a bizarre tale of a man with a cleft lip forced by circumstances to share his life with a solitary woman. Munro does not tell us if they became lovers or just companions out of the sheer exigency of not having another soul in the world to depend on. But it does become evident that the war, and its aftermath, did alter moralities, values and perceptions for good.

One of the most haunting stories in the volume, Train, is about a war veteran called Jackson, who drifts from town to town, people to people, building up a life in each place, only to see it fall apart, and to escape into the next unknown. It’s this steady faith in the provisional, the transitory, that makes even the most broken of Munro’s characters repositories of resilience, if not of a hardened optimism.

Change sneaks up on Munro’s characters in ways that often blur the line between fate and agency. When Greta, not unhappily married to Peter and mother to little Katy, sends out a note to Harris Bennett, who she had met fleetingly at a party and had felt obscurely attracted to, she does not really anticipate the outcome of her action. “Writing this letter is like putting a note in a bottle—/And hoping/It will reach Japan," reads her unsigned, haiku-like message.

The result of this missive leaves her no less “dazed and full of disbelief" than the narrator of Amundsen, who is deserted by her betrothed on the brink of matrimony. When the latter runs into him years later, she is married to another man, embroiled in her own domestic woes. There is a breezy exchange of pleasantries between them in the middle of a busy street in Toronto. But in spite of the intervening years and the casualness of the encounter, she is left with the recognition that “Nothing changes really about love."

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Published: 06 Apr 2013, 12:05 AM IST
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