Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

"Dear Life" by Alice Munro (Chatto and Windus, 2012)

  • In "To Reach Japan" a wife of a engineer is a bit of a poet. On a long train trip she's unfaithful, leaving her daughter asleep. When she returns, the daughter's gone, but not far. Then at the station she meets a man, a poet she's met before. Her daughter lets go of her hand.
  • "Amundsen" begins on a train. A women takes up a teaching post in a TB hospital in a little place called Amundsen. The doctor, Alister, takes her to bed on their 2nd evening together. A surprize. He promises to marry her. Later, he's driving to their secret wedding. They're parked outside a shop. The driver of the truck in front of them raps on their window.
    Alister is surprized - if he had not been talking so earnestly he would have noticed the problem. He rolls down the window and the man asks if we are parked there because we intend to buy something in the store. If not, could we please move along?
    "Just leaving," says Alister, the man sitting beside me who was going to marry me but now is not going to marry me. (p.61)
    Only later are we told about the nature of the discussion. The page-long section at the end jumps years to show when they meet again by chance in a crowded street, walking in opposite directions. The story ends
    It still seemed as if we could make our way out of that crowd, that in a moment we would be together. But just as certain that we would carry on in the way we were going. And so we did. No breathless cry, no hand on my shoulder when I reached the sidewalk. Just that flash, that I had seen in an instant, when one of his eyes opened wider. It was the left eye, always the left, as I remembered. And it always looked so strange, alert and wondering, as some whole impossibility had occurred to him, one that almost made him laugh.
    For me, it was the same as when I left Amundsen, the train dragging me still dazed and full of disbelief.
    Nothing changes really about love.
    Rather as in the first story, a child (this time Mary, who's befriended the woman) reveals something about the adults - Mary said that the doctor had "one eye crooked to the other".
  • In "Leaving Maverley" a quiet girl suddenly disappears. Turns out she run off to marry the minister's jazz-playing son, though they only met once. At the end, four years later, we find out how she's been doing.
  • "Gravel" has a child narrator whose older sister drowns trying to save their dog. Their mother had left her insurance agent father to start a new live with someone from the theatre. At the moment in the narration when the drowning happens, the style changes
    After a while, I realized I was being given instructions.
    I was to go back to the trailer and tell Neal and our mother something.
    That the dog had fallen into the water.
    The dog had fallen into the water and Caro was afraid she'd be drowned.
    Blitzee. Drowned.
    But Blitzee wasn't in the water.
    She could be. And Caro could jump in to save her.
    I believe I still put up some argument, along the lines of she hasn't, you haven't, it could happen but it hasn't.
    Years later, in the final 2.5 pages, the narrator meets the man her mother ran off with. He says "Accept everything and then tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens, anyway" (p.109)

4 stories. 4 women leaving boring security to try a new lifestyle. Each story has a sudden change in narrative style (a change in pace, the amount of introspection, or of detail) at a crucial moment. Often there's a coda.

  • "Haven" ends with a funeral. There are power-plays within families, examples of how women try to exert control - "Devotion to anything, if you were female, could make you ridiculous" (p.128)
  • "Pride" has a deformed man not wanting a once-rich woman to move in with him. At the end they're looking into his backyard
    It was full of birds. Black-and-white, dashing up a storm.
    Not birds. Something larger than robins, smaller than crows.
    She said, "Skunks. Little skunks. More white in them than black." But how beautiful. Flashing and dancing and never getting in each other's way, so you could not tell how many there were, where each body started or stopped.
    While we watched, they lifted themselves up one by one and left the water and proceeded to walk across the yard, swiftly but in a straight diagonal line. As if they were proud of themselves but discreet. Five of them.
  • In "Corrie", when a long-term blackmailer dies, the husband and mistress involved don't feel as they expected. I didn't really get it.
  • "Train" is the longest piece - 40 pages - and maybe my favourite. A man walks out of one life into another. Then again.
  • "In Sight of the Lake" a woman drives to a village, becomes rather confused. At the end we discover that it's all a dream/recollection by an old lady in care.
  • "Dolly" begins with 2 people in a suicide pact, driving, wondering whether to leave a note. Later we learn about how a woman with a broken car once affected their relationship, a note involved again.

Before the last 4 stories is a short note that will frequently be quoted

Finale - 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 4 pieces share some descriptions (of how the door was locked, for example), assess the difference between reality and how the events would be treated in fiction, and a puzzlement about how events weren't questioned or probed at the time.

  • A child's taken to see the dead body of a favourite maid in "The Eye". She believes for years that she saw the corpse's eye twitch, knowing it couldn't be true.
  • In "Night" a young girl who shares a room with her younger sister has insomnia, begins to imagine harming her sister. She starts walking outside. One night she meets her father (who'd probably been waiting for her). His relaxed attitude puts her mind at rest.
  • In "Voices" a girl accompanies her mother to a dance, sees people there who give her ideas about sex
  • "Dear Life" - more about a mother who wanted to be upwardly mobile, but got Parkinson's, and a father who was more popular, more content. On the final page the narrator says "I did not go home for my mother's last illness or for her funeral", which may help explain the number of funerals in this book.

Other reviews

  • Kate Kellaway (Observer)
  • Christian Lorentzen (LRB) ('her reputation is like a good address.’ It’s an address I wouldn’t want to move to, and I didn’t enjoy my recent visit. But the impulse to say that makes me wonder whether I’m some sort of big city chauvinist, or a misogynist, or autistic, or a decadent reader deaf to the charms of simple sentences, perfectly polished ... Munro’s stories suffer when they’re collected because the right way to read them is in a magazine ... Munro started out as an epiphany-monger. ... the slow way the stories make their single-minded march towards precious (if a bit obvious) epiphanies is a relief from Munro’s later tendency to heap on details for details’ sake and load up her stories with false leads. ... Munro’s most trusted story-generating procedure: Rose observes something, then experiences something else herself, and years later another thing happens that connects the two incidents and imbues them with meaning. ... A widespread yearning [] a time of more innocence and more shame – a yearning to be repressed – seems to explain a lot about Munro’s popularity and acclaim)
  • Ruth Scurr (Dairy Telegraph
  • Jesse Kornbluth (Huffington Post)
  • quill and quire (By actively suppressing so many chronological and biographical markers, these new works capture qualities of memory and consciousness that, in Munro’s earlier stories, were embedded in larger, detailed narratives)
  • Anne Enright (The Guardian)

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