Dear Life by Alice Munro: A collection of highs and lows

If Munro’s relationship with the short story is, for the most part, blissfully happy, her relationship with the story collection is prone to highs and lows, writes Leo Robson.

Canadian author Alice Munro.
Canadian author Alice Munro. Photograph: Getty Images.

Dear Life
Alice Munro
Chatto & Windus, 336pp, £18.99

Alice Munro’s 13th collection of short stories takes its title from a sentence that occurs on the penultimate page, in the last of four not-quite- rewarding “not quite stories” about the writer’s childhood that come after the ten very-much stories that make up the bulk of the book. The late position of the phrase and the mundanity of its deployment (“My mother had grabbed me up, as she said, for dear life”) suggest that Munro wants her title to inspire broader associations – life as precious and fragile, or as a familiar old friend, or as the recipient of a letter from a child: “Dear Life, please make mummy stop crying.”

Another phrase from the same not-quite story has a greater impact in context and a more cohesive range of resonance beyond it. Writing as far as we can tell in her own voice, Munro uses a memory of one of her neighbours in the southern Ontario village where she grew up to acknowledge the discrepancy that exists, despite appearances, between what she experienced and how she writes: “Roly Grain, his name was, and he does not have any further part in what I’m writing now, in spite of his troll’s name, because this is not a story, only life.”

Munro is so often praised for her clear-water qualities, for offering a sense of “unmediated access to life”, that readers might be surprised to discover the presence in her stories not just of artifice and manipulation but of sociological curiosity, mischievous humour and a narrative charge. All of these are on display in “Corrie”, a thriller-ish tale about an affair between a married architect and the daughter of a factory owner that moves briskly from set-up to payoff, asking as it goes delicate questions about the impact of class, politics and religion on personal morality. The Roly Grain who marks this out as a story and not life is Lillian Wolfe, introduced ever so slyly as the woman “in charge of the fires” at Corrie’s house but who soon emerges as the possessor of just enough knowledge to complicate things for the central couple. Later on, a man called Jimmy Cousins, whom we have met in what seemed like passing as the man who cuts the grass outside a library, becomes suddenly relevant, as a bringer of local news.

Stories such as “Corrie” or “Train”, which charts the peregrinations of an itchy-footed ex-soldier, show that Munro has taken not a Carver-ish vow of poverty but a Chekhovian vow of luxury and ambition. The stories that work less well are those – “Gravel” is among them – that take unexpected turns of a familiar kind or that stake out their territory almost immediately and then work to inspire interest through a delayed revelation or reversal, rather than the thickening of plot and texture.

History flickers palely at the edges of most of the stories, never obtruding directly but often having a decisive impact, if not on a general way of life, then on individual lives. One of Munro’s ambitions in Dear Life is to construct a composite counter-history showing how postwar social change registered in small Canadian towns. It was a case, in her portrayal, of a gentle shaking up rather than a major overhaul. (An unwritten rule states that story-writers can only be compared to other story-writers, but Munro, with her amused irony and the sense she conveys of possessing insight on an endless spool, brings to mind Anne Tyler, the central difference being that while both excel at evoking the rural or small-town community, for Munro it serves as backdrop, for Tyler as subject.)

“Haven” takes its title from the narrator’s Aunt Dawn saying that a woman’s most important job is “making a haven for her man” – and Uncle Jasper is certainly the dominant figure in the marriage. The setting is the 1970s but the narrator, remembering herself as a girl, is sure to staunch the rush of images: “The boys’ hair was longer than it had been, but not straggling down their backs, and there didn’t seem to be an unusual amount of liberation or defiance in the air.” And though the story hinges on Aunt Dawn’s first ever act of rebellion, the terror attending it suggests that if news of feminism had reached her ears, its effect was to inspire a moment of bravery rather than to instil a sense of entitlement.

The stern uncle and submissive aunt are offered in contrast to the narrator’s parents who have “dumped” her (“my word for it”) to do missionary work in Ghana. The urgency and potential efficacy of this work appears to be limited: “Christianity bloomed disconcertingly all around them, even on signs on the back of buses.” Hippiedom might have won out over patriarchy but, in “Haven”, both the deserting parents who “gave the kind of parties where people ate chilli out of clay pots” and the oldfashioned childless couple are made the objects of an equally unimpressed detachment.

If Munro’s relationship with the short story is, for the most part, blissfully happy, her relationship with the story collection is prone to highs and lows. None of these ten stories read on their own would provide nearly so rich a  exhibition of Munro’s confidence and poise or so abundant a portrait of sexual relations in Ontario and British Columbia as all ten read together in a row. Yet to digest them in this way, like reading a whole shelf of a novelist’s work, is to receive too compact a survey of Munro’s habits: her approach to beginning and ending stories, for example, or her recourse, frequent enough to qualify as dependency, to the chance encounter, the sudden death, the present tense, the dying fall – and the dash.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer