Up until the time of the first baby I had not been aware of ever feeling different from the way my mother said I felt....It wasn't that my mother actually told me what I was to feel about things. She was an authority on that without having to question a thing. ... It was with my brother's coming, though, and the endless carryings-on about how he was some sort of present for me that I began to accept how largely my mother's notions about me might differ from my own. - Alice Munro, The Eye
If you like short fiction, you probably already know that Dear Life (Alfred A. Knopf 2012) is the latest collection from acclaimed author Alice Munro, and you also probably already know that she writes marvelous short stories. Like so many of her fans, I love the way she explores women's lives and relationships with scrupulous attention to interior and emotional detail, and she does so once again in Dear Life.
The women in Munro's stories often chafe against the intellectual or physical confinement of marriage, housewifery and/or motherhood. In a few of my favorites in this collection, "To Reach Japan" and "Gravel," women act to escape this confinement, but their choices do not come without cost. In "To Reach Japan," I was particularly moved by a terrifying scene on a train, in which a mother returns to her compartment following an adulterous tryst only to discover her child has gone missing. In "Gravel," a young girl's mother undergoes a transformation: first to new, modern styles of dress then to new, modern styles of love. The mother leaves her husband and, with her children in tow, moves in with her actor-boyfriend - with whom she is expecting a baby. The story explores the daughter's relationship with her older sister as much as with the mother, and when tragedy befalls the older sister, the narrative turns introspective, as if the author is considering what the changing times meant for women, for family relationships, for childhood development, and for the person she became.
This collection is also notable because it includes four stories that are "autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact." I found these stories fascinating, most of all for the insight they give the reader about Munro's fictional work. They include very frank descriptions of Munro's relationship with her mother, what it was like to grow up fairly poor in small town/rural Canada during the war years, and the severe impact of bullying and corporeal punishment on the writer's sense of self. The most moving of them, in my opinion, was the final story, "Dear Life," in which the author recounts her own mother's tale of the time a disoriented woman came to the house in a state of great distress, causing the author's mother to gather up baby Alice and hide. It is both touching and chilling in that terrible moment, yet ultimately widens into a lovely exploration of Munro's connection to the place of her childhood.
I thoroughly enjoyed Dear Life and recommend it for short fiction readers and Alice Munro fans. For those interested in learning more, I recommend this interview with Alice Munro over at The New Yorker - it gives you a very good sense of the author, her work, and the autobiographical inspiration for her writing.