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Book review: 'Dear Life' by Alice Munro

Like her fiction, the title of Alice Munro's new story collection packs a world of meaning into a plainspoken phrase. Dear Life: It's a homely expression for stoically dealing with extremity. "Hanging on for dear life" is such a familiar metaphor we hardly register the image it evokes, the figure dangling from a cliff or high ledge. Or it might read as exultation — Dear life! — or even the salutation of a letter of farewell.

Such resonance in what seems like simple language has been one of Munro's most skillfully used tools during her long career as a fiction writer. Now 81, she began publishing as a teenager and is one of Canada's most revered writers; she received the 2009 Man Booker International Prize for her lifetime body of work.

Dear Life is her 14th book, a collection of 14 stories, most set in Munro's home province of Ontario. It's unique in that, although many of her works of fiction have had autobiographical elements, she has designated the last four in this collection, a group she calls "Finale," as "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."

Both those stories and many of the others in Dear Life deal with transitions. Their settings range from the Great Depression, when Munro was a child to the 1970s, when feminism and sexual revolution were changing the natures of marriage and motherhood, two of her most frequent subjects.

In the collection's first two stories, we meet young women taking train trips to new lives. Greta, the main character in To Reach Japan, boards the train in British Columbia, where she lives, bound for a couple of months of house-sitting for a friend in Toronto. The narrator of Amundsen, a young teacher, has taken a job at a remote tuberculosis sanitorium, where many of her students will not survive to adulthood. Greta is fleeing a suffocating marriage, while the woman in Amundsen wants nothing more than to marry. Both of them will take enormous risks and find their lives upended.

Munro switches to a male narrator for Pride, a skillfully controlled story that spans the lifetimes of its two characters, evoking Henry James in its quiet lament for chances never taken, lives hardly lived.

Two stories narrated by young girls examine male-female relationships from a child's point of view. In Gravel, set in the '60s, a glamorous young woman abandons her husband and takes her two daughters to live in a rural retreat with a dashing actor. For the younger daughter, who tells the story, it's something of an adventure. But her recounting of what happens to her sister is chilling. The narrator of Haven, the daughter of very modern parents who go off on a trip to Africa, is sent to live with her very traditional aunt and uncle. At first she scrutinizes their union — he's the boss, and her "life revolves around that man" — like an anthropologist, but she soon witnesses mysteries she'll still be trying to untangle decades later.

The four stories in "Finale" all focus on Munro's childhood, from infancy to early teens. Together, they form a beautifully composed and nuanced portrait of her mother and Munro's relationship with her. The author's facility for making a phrase resonate with a complex idea is evident throughout these stories, as when line-dried laundry is brought in by a dedicated homemaker, smelling "all fresh and congratulatory."

At some points we hear the voice of a girl trying to establish her own identity by rejecting her parent, as when, in Voices, the narrator says of her mother, "I think people found her pushy and overly grammatical." At others we hear the mature author, tipping her hand about how fiction is constructed, as when she describes a small-town prostitute wearing a "golden-orange taffeta" dress: "I think that if I was writing fiction instead of remembering something that happened, I would never have given her that dress. A kind of advertisement she didn't need."

In these stories, the mother can be cruel — taking a terrified first-grader to the funeral of her beloved babysitter and making her look into the coffin in The Eye — and judgmental. But Munro ends with the title story, a kind of ghost story often told by her mother. At first just a scary tale about a crazy neighbor who almost snatched Munro when she was an infant, it grows into a poignant revelation of loss and forgiveness, a wise finale indeed.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

Dear Life: Stories

By Alice Munro

Alfred A. Knopf, 319 pages, $26.95

Book review: 'Dear Life' by Alice Munro 11/17/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 17, 2012 3:30am]

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