Review: Dear Life
Eilís Ní Dhuibhne reviews most recent collection, Dear Life
This is a fresh masterpiece, surrounded by stories that are simultaneously old and new. Implicit in this volume is an invitation to view Munro’s life work as a unity, an evolving work, almost like one very long novel. The epicurean pleasure of revisiting certain situations and characters is enhanced by her inclusion, at the close of the book, of four sketches. Heartbreakingly, they are entitled Finale. “They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and the last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life.”
These sketches seem less fictional than the stories that appeared in her previous “sort of memoir”, A View from Castle Rock. In them she shares her earliest memories, of life on the family farm in Wingham, of the birth of her siblings, of her adored, if disturblingly disciplinarian, father, her brilliant, chronically ill, mother. We Munrovians recognise the raw material of countless stories – and what we learn is how artfully the “truth” was sculpted into fiction. At the hand of the master baker, the raw ingredients, the eggs and the flour, became perfect cakes.
To read these relatively unshaped pieces, and compare them with the stories they begot, is as good a lesson in creative writing as anyone will ever get. It was wonderfully generous of Munro to provide us with this snippet of autobiography. (The same openness and generosity was shown by John McGahern when, late in life, he wrote his memoir, and by Edna O’Brien, in those sections of her recent memoir that deal with her childhood.) And, like many generous gifts, this one rewards the giver. The “final” sketches reveal not just the sources but also the extent of Munro’s art. From very simple stuff she has created very great literature. Maybe, after all, the perfect word, the only word that says just enough about the writer and her stories, is that last resort of the speechless: magic.