Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dear Life, by Alice Munro

Even before she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Alice Munro was generally regarded as a master of the short story form. I have enjoyed several collections from earlier in her career. In fact, I enjoyed Dear Life while listening to it--but a couple of weeks have passed since I finished it, and I don't remember a lot about the 20 stories and four somewhat autobiographical pieces, other than their general sense of psychological and geographic isolation.

Two stories did stay with me. In "Amundsen," young Vivien travels to a rural area to teach children confined to a TB sanitarium. She is good at her job, engaging students in learning in a way not always sanctioned by the authorities. Then she becomes involved with Doctor Fox, a man with little charm but the ability to elevate her social standing. They become engaged but suffice it to say that things do not turn out well.

"Train" opens with Jackson, a veteran, returning from World War II. A short distance from his hometown, he jumps off the train and walks in the opposite direction. He comes upon a dilapidated farm run by a woman named Belle. He settles down there, living with Belle as brother and sister. Years later, when Belle becomes ill, he takes her to the city for treatment; in the process, she reveals secrets from her past that prompt Jackson to once again set off to reconstruct his life. Does the cycle repeat again? I leave that for you to find out.

As these brief synopses of two of the ten stories indicate, the stories have a melancholy tinge. Another common thread (to me at least) is how difficult it is to fathom the motivations of the characters--perhaps rereading would help resolve that difficulty, but I don't feel drawn enough to the stories to make the effort. Critics have noted that these later stories are not as long or as detailed and richly textured as Munro's earlier work, being more impressionistic. I think this may be a factor in my response.

Favorite passage:
Then there was silence, the air like ice. Brittle-looking birch trees with black marks on their white bark, and some kind of small untidy evergreens rolled up like sleepy bears. The frozen lake not level but mounded along the shore, as if the waves had turned to ice in the act of falling.

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