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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.

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

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.