Review: Dear Life

Eilís Ní Dhuibhne reviews most recent collection, Dear Life

Sat, Dec 1, 2012, 00:00


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The character of the man may be vaguelly familiar. But he has some new traits, and is placed in a new plot, another time and place. Above all, he is viewed from a new angle. Although he retains his lifelong attractiveness to the narrator (“Nothing changes really about love”), he has qualities in common with his four-footed namesake, and not just the colour of his hair.

Other stories in this collection deal with characters who turn out to be far from what they seem – notably Corrie’s lover, in the story of that name, who behaves with a cunning that most would find intolerable. But not Corrie. Her big epiphany does not actually change anything in her life, apart from her understanding of it – and our epiphany is to see that that is enough. Insight. She sees. She forgives. She survives.

“Honest” is an adjective often applied to Munro’s fiction. To be honest is to be moral. The other great morality of her fiction is that it is compassionate and nonjudgmental – more than ever, now that she is an octogenerian. Not that she has ever been bitter or angry. But she is far from evasive. Frank reflection on the politics of gender, of reproduction (including abortion), of religion (including fundamentalism and atheism) and, above all, of class informs her writing. This has been achieved so gently, in such engaging stories, that it can go unnoticed. In this collection, too, her abiding concerns with class, gender and religion continue to find expression. “Then you would have to explain that feminism was not even a word people used. Then you would get all tied up saying that having any serious idea, let alone ambition, or maybe even reading a real book, could be seen as suspect, having something to do with your child’s getting pneumonia . . .”

As her moral vision has matured, so has the prose: it has lost the flamboyance, the glittering comedy so vivid in, say, Lives of Girls and Women or The Beggar Maid or The Moons of Jupiter. When you’re as good – and as successful – as Munro, you don’t need to dance on the tightrope in a sequined dress, as younger writers must do, partly because they are energetic and just want to romp, but also to attract attention. All that look-at-me writing, and hers was great, is finished. For a long time she has written in a calm tone, using a quiet palette, although the humour is still there. It is a delight to observe this development, towards as much wisdom as anyone can hope for, to a kind of literary serenity, which accepts even what is most unacceptable to all of us.

Her circus animals have not deserted Alice Munro, and there is a new one in the ring. One story in this collection seems to me completely new: Train. Unusually, though not uniquely, it is told from the point of view of a man, Jackson. In her train stories, a man often gets off and we remain on board with the woman. But in this one we jump the train with Jackson, the competent self-reliant type, a former soldier with whom women fall in love. But a rolling stone, unable to root or connect. It is one of the best, most understated, stories of child abuse ever – though it deals with many other aspects of life.

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