On October 10, 2013, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy praised her as the “master of the contemporary short story.” At 82, she is the first Canadian and the 12th woman to win this coveted prize. Readers of her latest short story collection, Dear Life: Stories, will definitely understand why she received this recognition.
Munro recently announced that she was retiring and that Dear Life: Stories would be her last book. In this volume of fourteen short stories, she gives readers a taste of life in a small Northern Ontario town and symbolically returns to her childhood roots in Huron County, Ontario. The first story, “To Reach Japan,” tracks the journey of a mother and her young daughter from Vancouver on a train ride back to Ontario. However, this gentle story soon turns into an examination of morality, marriage and the ever-present responsibilities of parenthood. Munro’s stories may be concise, but they examine complex situations, intricate relationships and fundamental truths about the human condition.
In “Amundsen,” a new teacher arrives in a tuberculosis sanatorium to teach the young patients. Her life seems boring, but when she falls in love with her reclusive boss, things change. The two are soon secretly engaged, but circumstances get in the way of their relationship. When they meet years later, she realizes that, “Nothing really changes about love.” (p. 66) In this story, the isolated setting and the stereotypical story of love gone wrong are turned into a treatise about the nature of love, commitment and relationships.
Munro’s stories are full of life-and-death situations which demand unique responses from her characters. In “Leaving Maverley,” Ray Elliott, the night policeman in town, quietly watches the melodrama of Leah’s life as she runs away from her restrictive family, marries the minister’s son, then returns with her two children only to become involved in yet another scandal. Meanwhile, Ray’s wife falls into a coma, and he leaves Maverley to watch over her in the hospital. Ray and Leah meet again just as his wife has died. The reunion somehow gives Ray comfort as he faces the loss of his wife: “The emptiness in place of her was astounding…She had existed and now she did not.” (p. 90)
The final four stories in this anthology are very different from the others. Munro tells readers, “They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” (p. 254). In these tales, Munro describes events in her childhood as well as family relationships. They are populated by the characters of her youth: their unfortunate housekeeper, Sadie; her younger sister, Catherine; her mother, who suffers from Parkinson’s; and her father, who struggles to make ends meet after his fur business fails.
Munro’s Dear Life: Stories is a stylistic wonder. Not only does she capture a unique sense of place with her stories of small-town life, but her psychological insights into the lives of her characters will amaze readers. Each story is a tightly woven masterpiece of clever plot, masterful characterization and profound insights into the important things in life. The storytellers are all uniquely gifted in revealing complex truths, from the elderly woman struggling with Alzheimer’s in “In Sight of the Lake” to the middle-aged woman who has been betrayed by her lover in “Corrie.”
Alice Munro has written twelve collections of stories including Runaway, The View from Castle Rock and Dance of the Happy Shades. She has also written one novel, Lives of Girls and Women. She has received many awards, including three Governor General’s Literary Awards, two Giller Prizes, the National Book Critics Circle Prize, and the 2009 Man Booker International Prize. Her stories have appeared in many literary magazines such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Paris Review. Her fourteenth book, Dear Life: Stories, will thrill readers who will definitely understand why she was awarded the Novel Prize in Literature in October 2013.