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Book Review: Dear Life by Alice Munro

If you have the time, I want you to watch the two most recent announcements of the Nobel Prize for Literature. To get you started, here’s the 2014 Laureate:

Then here’s the one from 2013:

When Peter Englund, the Permanent Secretary announced the 2014 Prize, Patrick Modiano’s name was met with silence. Contrast that with the 2013 announcement where there was jubilation among those who attended the announcement when Munro’s name was announced. I am not comparing the literary prowess of Modiano with that of Munro (although in my opinion, Munro is the clear winner) nor am I saying that jubilation and name recognition is a requirement for being considered deserving of the prize. What I’m saying is that there is an obvious disparity between how the two writers are perceived. Modiano was met with silence probably due to a lack of recognition among those attending (to be fair to Modiano, he writes with a prose deserving of a Nobel Laureate) while Munro was met with a sense of the coming of the inevitable.

Victor Hugo said (depending on what translation you read) that “Nothing is stronger than idea whose time has come.” Munro’s time has come and some can say that it has come many years ago before she even thought of publishing her last collection and retiring, a year before her crowning as the new Nobel Laureate for Literature. Was her retirement and publication of her last short story collection related to the Swedish Academy awarding her the Nobel Prize for Literature? I might say that it might have been a factor but it isn’t the main one because there’s no question that the reason why she won the award is that, as the Swedish Academy put it, she is “the master of the contemporary short story” which is very apparent in her last collection, Dear Life.

How to describe Dear Life in a few words? It is Munro writing like she always does, at her best, yet giving us a glimpse into her personal life. I say this with the caveat that all her stories have the quality of the personal in them and they all seemed rooted in autobiographical details. However,  the final four stories of Dear Life held this preface from Munro:

The final four works in this book are not quite stories. 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 last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life.

The preface marked the last four stories – ‘The Eye’, ‘Night’, ‘Voices’, and ‘Dear Life’ – as the closest that we are ever going to get to an autobiography of Munro which makes them not only more personal but also more important (perhaps to the scholars) than any of her other stories. All four of such stories were written with not only a similarity of voice but also of circumstance. They are stories told from the perspective of an adult remembering childhood memories – the death of a beloved housekeeper; a secret talk with her father; witnessing the prelude or aftermath of sexual abuse, and a mother’s traumatic event – and this introspection giving new meaning to events that could not have been understood by a child at the time. Yet it also gives us a glimpse into how we interpret our own memories and how unreliable we are in doing so. We modify events, insert meaning and sometimes invent memories in order to fit a narrative palatable to us.

“We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do — we do it all the time.”

I have attempted to summarize stories for this “review” but I feel like I do not have the descriptive depth to write what is happening in Munro’s stories. She writes with a restrained but deft hand, giving her readers a glimpse into the complexities of human behavior yet her settings and plots are mundane. Her characters are not grandiose and they certainly are not special. They are housewives, soldiers, schoolteachers, and policemen who are just living their lives and will continue to live their lives even after the story has ended without much change except the inner turmoil that Munro has decided to magnify and write about.

“I just believed it easily, the way you might believe and in fact remember that you once had another set of teeth, now vanished but real in spite of that. Until one day, one day when I may even have been in my teens, I knew with a dim sort of hole in my insides that now I didn’t believe it anymore.”

This has long ceased to be a “review” of Dear Life and instead became a piece on how I love her work. I might not write about any of her works again because I will keep repeating myself and tell the world of my admiration of Munro. Obviously, she is one of my favorite writers and I have only read three of her works. You can’t possibly believe the joy I feel when I think about the rest of her short story collections (eleven in all) that are still waiting to be read.

317 pp.
Rating: 5/5

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