Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Munro displays strengths in brilliant new collection
CanLit icon Alice Munro turned 81 last July and she continues to publish a substantial collection of short stories every three or four years.
Her latest, Dear Life, follows Too Much Happiness by just three years and offers up 14 stories that beautifully recapture a bygone time in her favourite part of the world.
In his book Stories about Storytellers, Munro's longtime editor and publisher, Doug Gibson describes "Alice Munro Country" as "the undramatic landscape stretching east of Goderich [Ontario] -- a flat, partly wooded stretch of farming country with no striking natural features."
That area -- Huron County -- includes both Munro's birthplace, Wingham, and Clinton, the town she's lived in for nearly 40 years.
Most of the stories in Dear Life take place there and feature female protagonists, old and young. Years ago, Munro said her objective in writing was to "get at the exact tone and texture of how things are ... things about people, the way they look, the way they sound."
She continues to succeed brilliantly in this, showing ordinary girls and women in everyday situations, but giving them a certain importance in the reader's eyes.
In a note preceding the last four stories in the book, Munro says, "They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely in fact. I believe they are the first and last -- and the closest -- things I have to say about my own life."
All four have an unnamed first-person narrator -- presumably Alice -- who looks back on incidents in her girlhood -- before, during and after the Second World War.
In one of these, at age 10 she attends a local dance with her mother; she feels unfamiliar stirrings when she overhears two young English airmen comforting a young woman in distress.
Munro achieves a double effect: perfectly describing the situation from a girl's point of view while having the present-day narrator sort out what the girl could not grasp at the time.
Munro is equally effective in showing present-day elderly people, as in Dolly, where the daily routine of a 71-year-old woman and her 83-year-old husband is disrupted by the arrival at their door of a cosmetics salesperson named Gwen. The revelation that she is an old flame of the husband brings back a host of youthful feelings -- especially silliness and jealousy.
Corrie tells of a married architect who carries on a longtime affair with a woman he sees only when he visits her small town, and the cleaning woman who blackmails them.
It is presented in modulated prose that suits the comedy and reflects a past when an affair could be kept quiet and neither participant wanted to change the status quo.
The lead story, To Reach Japan, takes place partly in Vancouver and partly on a trans-Canada train. It concerns Greta and her daughter Katy, heading for Toronto to look after a friend's house while Greta's husband is away on business.
All of Munro's strengths are on display here -- distinctive characterization, humour, buildup to a plausible surprise ending -- as Greta enjoys some impromptu love-making on the train and temporarily forgets Katy, who goes missing.
Years ago, American writer Cynthia Ozick famously said about Munro, "She is our Chekhov," using the term "our" loosely but likening her to the Russian master of short fiction.
Surely by now, after all the awards and adulation Munro has received (including the Man Booker International Prize for Lifetime Achievement), we need not invoke others like Chekhov and John Cheever for comparison but simply say, "She is our Alice Munro."
Winnipeg writer Dave Williamson is the author of two recent books, Dating: A Novel and Changing People's Lives: An Illustrated History of Red River College.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2012 J7
Updated on Saturday, October 13, 2012 at 2:51 PM CDT: adds fact box
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