Book Review: Dear Life by Alice Munro

I first heard of Alice Munro when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years ago. So poorly read am I that most winners are, to me, unheard of until they win. Having greatly enjoyed some of the work of previous winners, notably Gabriel Garcia Marquez and John Galsworthy, I was looking forward to this collection of short stories.

This is one of Munro’s later works and the opening story gives the impression that it was written with a sense of a retrospective, but told with great gentleness.

The back cover of the book states: “Alice Munro captures the essence of life in her brilliant new collection of stories. Moments of change, chance encounters, the twist of fate that leads a person to a new way of thinking or being: the stories in Dear Life build to form a radiant, indelible portrait of just how dangerous and strange ordinary life can be.”

Some of the short stories are actually quite long, the 2nd story being some 36 pages. These make them just a little bit too long to do in a single commute (when I do most of my reading). Not wanting to split a story across journeys, I took to reading one per weekend, so it’s taken me some 3 months to get through this book, moving at a relatively slow pace. Because there is no overarching narrative, this has resulted in me getting to look in through a window for a short space of time every Sunday afternoon. I catch a glimpse of what is going and then move on.

For what one is left with is not a memory of each plot, each character, each decision that they make. What one is left with is a feeling.

It is interesting to note that some of the stories were first published in The New Yorker, which also published the wartime stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. As I had read that so recently, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels between them. For again, none of Munro’s characters stick with you for long after you’ve finished reading the stories. Even as I write this, I cannot think of more than a couple of names and very few of the plotlines. But this does not mean it is bad writing. If anything, it is quite the opposite, because what I have been left with is the impression that the stories have made, their footprints on the sand of my mind. They get you thinking as you read and it is those thoughts that linger with you. So I suspect many a reader will take away from this work something different, something unique to them and how they relate to Munro’s writing.

But in order to take that something away, you must first invest the time to read Munro, and that is something I would encourage you to do. Don’t expect her to blow you away with dazzling imagery or turns of phrase that make the heart ache, but let her abide with you for a season.

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2 responses to “Book Review: Dear Life by Alice Munro

  1. I also picked up Munro only recently: not this book, but another collection. There is no questioning her superlative skill. But her stories can also be an invitation to despair. That for all your efforts to deal with the deep human challenges that she digs into, of the ones that you have experienced, you are taken back to zero. Someone said of Munro’s writing that it destroys the will to live. No chance of that with me; but I understand what they meant. There is great craft in Munro, and there is mischief. I never want to read another word.

  2. Pingback: What to read in 2015? | The Alethiophile