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‘Dear Life’ by Alice Munro

Alice Munro’s latest collection sheds some light on her own life.

Derek Shapton

Alice Munro’s latest collection sheds some light on her own life.

Canadian-born Alice Munro, a world-class writer whose name comes up on lists of potential Nobel literature candidates, is writing at the peak of her powers in “Dear Life.” Her 14 stories are so fluid and close to the mystery of life that reading them is like being inside the mind of a writer as she creates, shaping language within her spacious imagination, suffusing words with empathy, darting in unexpected directions before she reveals a final mysterious truth.

Munro begins her stories in surprising places, usually in the midst of the action. It is a measure of the restless energy of these tales that several start on trains. “To Reach Japan,” the story of an interrupted love resumed almost by accident, begins as a husband puts his wife and preschool daughter on a train to Toronto, and ends when the two reach their destination with the bond between them transformed.

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“Amundsen” opens with a young woman on a train heading from wartime Toronto to a new job as a teacher at an isolated tuberculosis sanitarium. There she is drawn into a strange affair with the sanitarium’s austere doctor that will instruct her in love and haunt her for decades.

“Train” begins abruptly: “This is a slow train anyway, and it has slowed some more for the curve.” Jackson, a nervous, scrawny soldier coming home from World War II, heaves his bag and leaps onto the tracks within walking distance of his hometown, where he’s expected at midnight. But he walks in the opposite direction, encountering Belle, a woman living alone in an aging farmhouse with a horse and buggy for transportation. One impulsive leap, and he’s shifted the direction of his life. He stays in the house for years, repairing, improving, and treating Belle like an older sister. In 1962, when she has surgery for a lump in her breast in Toronto, a chance meeting sends him on yet another path toward an encounter that explains his past. What is astonishing is not so much what happens to Jackson, but the strange ways in which it happens, and the delicious ways in which Munro delves into layers of memory to explore the reasons for his disconnection from the women he might love.

The spiral of memory also is at play in the stunning story “Gravel,” which traces the ways in which two young sisters are affected by their mother’s affair with a dope-smoking actor. They move with her and their dog from their large house with its spacious lawn to a trailer beside a gravel pit. What happens between the sisters one afternoon in that gravel pit leaves the younger one scarred for life; the final image concludes the story with a shock of truth.

As in her previous 12 collections, Munro writes about ordinary people dealing with confusions, failures, and sustained visions of what might have been; she skewers the narrow-minded and creates lasting portraits of the neglected and forlorn, unveiling their secrets with delicate grace. In a concluding section she calls “Finale,” she includes four “not quite stories” that are autobiographical in feeling, if not exactly fact. “I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life,” she writes of these precious clues to the origins of her art.

This suite of four stories begins with a birth and ends with a funeral. In the first, “The Eye,” Munro gives us her earliest memories of her mother filling the house with “her footsteps her voice her powdery yet ominous smell.” When she was five, her brother was born; her younger sister came the following year. “Up until the time of the first baby I had not been aware of ever feeling different from the way my mother said I felt,” she writes. After her brother’s birth, she begins to accept “how largely my mother’s notions about me might differ from my own.”

By the fourth, the title story, “Dear Life,” she is “full of resentment and quarrelsome remarks. ‘Talking back,’ it was called.” And, we as readers know, she is coming close to discovering the powerful inner voice that will sustain her as a writer. Her mother’s health is in decline, with early-onset Parkinson’s, and her father is going broke. She is reading big novels borrowed from the town library — “Remembrance of Things Past,” “The Magic Mountain.’’ And she believes herself a lucky person. “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.”

In the final devastating paragraph, after her mother has died, Munro delivers yet another enigmatic revelation: “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.” Like so much of Munro’s work it is a simple statement, wise and unforgettable. “Dear Life’’ is a wondrous gift; a reminder of why Munro’s work endures.

Jane Ciabattari, who has contributed to the New York Times Book Review, NPR.org,The Daily Beast, and others, is a former president of the National Book Critics Circle and can be reached at janeciab@gmail.com.
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