Dear Life by Alice Munro

I found Dear Life in a shop in our first week in Sint Maarten. It was like seeing the light at the end of a dark tunnel made of uninteresting publications. My husband was craving for something to read and I immediately advised him to buy it. Not that I have ever read anything about or by her before, but the first sentence on the back of the book captured my attention.

“In story after story […], Alice Munro pinpoints the moment a person is forever altered by a chance encounter, an action not taken, or a simple twist of fate.”

How could this book not be the best reading to start our absolutely random adventure in the Caribbean? So we bought it. My husband read it first. My turn came after a few weeks.

Alice Munro is a Canadian writer awarded with a Nobel prize in 2013 for her pivotal role in shaping contemporary short stories. Dear Life is a collection of fourteen stories with the last four being “the first and last – and the closest – things [Alice Munro has] to say about [her] own life”.

Munro’s writing style is very easy to read, yet nothing is obvious and you feel like the stories themselves like life can take unexpected twists. It has been said about her writing that it “embed[s] more than announce[s], reveal[s] more than parade[s]” (Wikipedia). I could not agree more.

My husband thought the book was indeed very well written but perhaps too somber for his taste. He could not read more than a story per time as the reading made him too sad – he said. Funny enough I did not find those stories depressing at all.

Certainly I loved a few stories more than others. I found some of them boring and purposeless (perhaps that was intentional?). I enjoyed others like little revelatory gems, perhaps because somehow I could relate more to them. My favourite is the story about a woman, Dolly, who accidentally changes the course of the life of her ex-sweetheart and his wife, a middle age couple on the verge of suicide.

Overall, I truly appreciated the writer’s way of effortlessly embedding tragedy as well as common human feelings without unnecessary drama. There is no climax in Munro’s stories, but just simple, fascinating, life. I found, for example, the description of the relation between the writer, as a child, and her mother particularly well revealed in this passage:

“The thing I really felt miserable about was Alice in Wonderland huge and trapped in the rabbit hole, but I laughed because my mother seemed delighted. It was with my brother’s coming, though, and the endless carryings-on about how he was some sort of present for me, that I began to accept how largely my mother’s notions about me might differ from my own.”

How many of you felt the same way? How many times your parents were convinced of something about you, or your taste, that was absolutely wrong? The writer is able to explain this very common feeling with just a few striking lines. The attempt to please our family and realise, in turn, that the latter has an erroneous idea of what we truly want   and who we think we are, is given by a child faking to like Carroll’s book and a mother believing that a second child is all what a first child wants.

In Munro’s stories there are children dying, broken marriages, diseases and difficult relations. (That’s where I assume my husband got the sadness from). But I also felt that in every story the idea of life – a dear life – that goes on, notwithstanding everything, was stubbornly strong.

“You would think that this was just too much. The business gone, my mother’s health going. It wouldn’t do in fiction. But the strange thing is that I don’t remember that time as unhappy.”

This passage in one of the more autobiographical stories made it even clearer to me. This book is about life, and all the weird turns it takes. A life that can be awfully unfair at times but, continuing with the writer’s words:

“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.”

I would not say that Dear Life is one of the best books I ever read, but a few of the stories that it contains are truly worth of a masterpiece. I’ll definitely read more of Munro’s books and I could not exhort you enough to try at least one.


 

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