A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I first became aware of Alice Munro in the first year of my undergraduate English Literature degree. One of her collections, Open Secrets, was on our set text list and her name was the only one in that term’s list that I hadn’t heard before. I went to find out more about her, and I found her mentioned in the same sentence as Margaret Atwood, who I had discovered a year earlier, in my last year of high school, and had immediately fallen in love with. If she was in any way like Atwood, I rather simplistically thought, then I will adore her.
I can’t remember now, where I read about their connection, nor indeed whether what I read was merely pointing out that they were both Canadian woman writers, but it doesn’t really matter. I was optimistic as I opened my first Alice Munro book, and I wasn’t disappointed. 14 years on, I still love Open Secrets.
But her latest collection of stories, Dear Life, has superseded my love for Open Secrets. It is, I think, a tremendous book that bears out what many people have said about Munro for years: one of her greatest skills is writing in extraordinary ways about perfectly ordinary people. Dear Life is particularly concerned with the moments in which lives transform, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad, sometimes in ways we are left to wonder about. Some of the moments are huge and obvious – such as the young woman in ‘Amundsen’ who is jilted by an older man in whom she had placed her trust, or the catastrophic outcome of a childish prank in ‘Haven’. Some of the moments are more internal, where one person’s decision can have ramifications not just on their life, but the lives of those around them. The first story in the book is such a one, where a woman takes her child on a cross-country rail trip to meet a man she encountered once at a party. In other story, a man returning from war is on his way back to his fiancee, when he gets off the train in an unexpected place, stumbles across a farm, and simply stays there, seemingly on a whim.
Most intriguing are the final four pieces, which are preceded by a page that states:
The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though 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.
The first, the last, the closest… I can’t be the only reader who has pored over these stories looking for information about this writer I have admired for over a decade? For this is all we will have, apparently, other than the bold facts that anyone can Google. Here is Munro talking about her life; her moments. I think I built it up too much in my own head, because I decided that it would only be fair to take a break before I read these last four works after devouring the other stories in the collection. I had to step back a bit, and try to remind myself what Munro says: “not quite stories”, which means they are not quite true either.
Whatever they are, I found them extremely moving. In one, a young girl’s night-time fear of what badness she might be capable of is calmed by her father. In another, the girl experiences the loss of a teenage friend who is killed in a car accident. In the last, the ‘Dear Life’ of the collection’s title, our narrator – our Munro – explores the idea of memory and how it is linked with place, and how others have both similar different memories of the same place. These are the things that seem to matter to Munro: place, memory, dear life itself.
I read Dear Life soon after she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and on reflection I am not surprised in the least that she was awarded such an accolade. This is an extraordinary book.
Alice Munro: Dear Life (London: Vintage, 2013). ISBN 9780099578635, paperback, £8.99.