Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Dear Life

I’d never read anything by Alice Munro, but became curious about her work when in October, at the age of 82 (not the oldest recipient; Doris Lessing was 88 when she was awarded the Prize in 2007), Munro was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature and lauded by the Swedish Academy as the “master of the contemporary short story.” A Canadian born and bred, Munro’s short stories usually focus on life in the Ontario region. She published her first collection of stories back in 1968 under the name “Dance of the Happy Shades.” “Dear Life” is her latest collection, published in 2012.

From the publisher:
“With her peerless ability to give us the essence of a life in often brief but spacious and timeless stories, Alice Munro illumines the moment a life is shaped -- the moment a dream, or sex, or perhaps a simple twist of fate turns a person out of his or her accustomed path and into another way of being. Suffused with Munro's clarity of vision and her unparalleled gift for storytelling, these stories (set in the world Munro has made her own: the countryside and towns around Lake Huron) about departures and beginnings, accidents, dangers, and homecomings both virtual and real, paint a vivid and lasting portrait of how strange, dangerous, and extraordinary the ordinary life can be.”
I rarely read short stories; the last collection of short stories that I read (and loved) was Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Olive Kitteridge,” which featured a number of tales all linked by the titular character, retired schoolteacher Olive Kitteridge. While I enjoyed “Dear Life”, both its format which allowed me to delve into the lives of these diverse characters in a short amount of time (each story is 30 pages or less) and the compelling stories, I found the book as a whole a depressing read. The individual stories speak to the worst human traits in each of us; selfishness, greed, pride, indifference.

“To Reach Japan” tells the story of a young poetess traveling via train with her young daughter, whom she leaves alone in her sleeping compartment in order to have a rendezvous with a performer she’s just met and then returns to find her daughter missing. “Amundsen” features Vivien a young teacher who’s been hired to teach at a sanatorium for children with tuberculosis, and the older surgeon working there that ultimately breaks her heart. “Corrie” tells the story of a wealthy young woman with a limp that starts an affair with a married man, and the purported blackmail by a former employee of hers that is threatening to rat them out to his wife. In “Train” we are introduced to Jackson, a young soldier on his way home to his fiancée after serving in the war, who gets off at an earlier stop, and comes across Belle and her dilapidated old farmhouse, and leaving his past behind starts life anew. My two favorite stories from the compilation were “Leaving Maverley” and “In Sight of the Lake”; the latter being a truly unforgettably poignant and haunting tale which will stay with me always.

There are a total of 14 stories in “Dear Life," the last four which Munro calls semi-autobiographical, and although each offers a captivating tale, most also highlight someone selfishly cheating, using, abandoning, or hurting someone else, whether intentionally or inadvertently. I know that “every” story can’t be wrapped up neatly with a bow and a happily ever after ending, life isn’t usually so sweet or neat, but I felt there was no sense of light or hope or even redemption in “any” of the tales. Life isn’t fair and rosy for everyone, I get that, but at the same time it isn’t all doom and gloom for everyone either. I guess what I missed was a sense of balance; joy and sadness, good and evil, dark and light.

Despite the book’s solemnity, I’m glad that I read it, for even in its darkness I was awed by the talent obviously necessary for an author to offer an insightful tale with depth and memorable characters (whether likable or not) in less pages than another author’s typical book chapter.