By Alice Munro, Chatto and Windus, 319pp, £18.99, Chatto and Windus, 319pp, £18.99
‘Who can ever say the perfect thing to the poet about his poetry? And not too much and not too little, just enough?”
“The perfect thing” is what reviewers strive to say about Alice Munro’s short stories as they strive to articulate the most fitting accolades for this most beloved of writers. “The best fiction writer now working in North America.” “Her name is spoken in hushed tones.” “A sort of magic.” Jonathan Franzen, in his review of Runaway, the collection published in 2004, famously refused to review the new work at all, but instead “circled around her latest marvel of a book” and offered eight reasons why “her excellence so dismayingly exceeds her fame”. She is too entertaining. Her fiction does not show off. She writes short stories. She doesn’t look like the anguished artist. And so on.
By now she has gained worldwide recognition and many awards, including the Man Booker International Prize. She was the bookies’ favourite for the Nobel this year, although unfortunately she did not get it. Maybe she does wear her genius too lightly (for the Swedish crowd).
Often richly metaphorical, her work is so beguiling at the level of story that it’s only on a third or fourth reading you begin to notice subtextual layers, the poetic subsoil. This is perhaps what readers sense when they fall back on those rather lazy words “magic”, “mystery” and “alchemy”. Is the magic in the metaphors that affect the readers without their knowing it? Yes. And it’s also in the compelling rhythm of Munro’s prose, as she leads you along a winding woodland path into the depths of the human psyche. And it’s in her humour, her intelligence, her knack for storytelling. What is “magic” in literature if it is not a weaving together of many strong and subtle threads to form a perfect tapestry, the impact of which leaves one speechless? Like the effect of an autumn tree, or the light of evening. This is what her stories do. These stories, and almost all her stories.
Dear Life is Munro’s 13th collection. It includes 10 stories and four autobiographical sketches. Favourite Munrovian themes are explored: “the persistence of desire” (to use John Updike’s pithy term); the conflict between the impulse to self-fulfilment and parental, mostly maternal, duty; the challenging love lives of the physically or psychologically damaged.
The settings are familiar: Toronto and Vancouver, small towns in Ontario, the trans-Canadian train. Character types we have met in other books recur, like old acquaintances whose faces we half-recognise: one is the reliable husband, with his crew-cut hair and neatly trimmed opinions, who, against all good sense, cannot compete with the attractions of a more complex, riskier lover. We met him first in The Beggar Maid, as Patrick. This time, Peter is his name. He has had others.
There is also the baby-faced, disingenuous siren, whose childish beauty men cannot resist. (Leah here. Queenie? And Nina.) And the self-contained, authoritative, intermittently attainable lover also looks familiar. Did I last bump into him in Simon’s Luck or Hold Me Fast, Don’t Let Me Pass? Sometimes he is an airman – Munro has talked about this favourite metaphor, inspired to some extent by a childhood crush. In What Is Remembered, he was a doctor who flew a plane (and crashed). This time he’s a surgeon in a TB sanatorium, Alister “Reddy” Fox, irresistible precisely because of his capacity not to give all the heart (or, finally, any of it): “This is the longest drive we have taken and I am aroused by his male unawareness of me – which I know now can quickly shift to its opposite – and his casual skill as a driver.”