Dear Life by Alice Munro - review by Patricia Duncker

Patricia Duncker

Offstage Drama

Dear Life


Chatto & Windus 319pp £18.99

Canada is a gigantic country, containing different landscapes, climates, peoples, cultures and languages. Alice Munro cuts it down to a disconcertingly small size. She situates her stories somewhere in the middle, usually not far north of Toronto, and locates her characters in small towns or on trains. And that sets the tone for these tales: small towns, small worlds, small lives, small events, with the large dramas kept offstage. Caro, a recalcitrant big sister, drowns herself in ‘Gravel’, but we never quite see it happening. The young girls with fatal TB in the sanatorium in ‘Amundsen’ die reported deaths. Belle in ‘Train’, a tale about the long-term effects of child sexual abuse, makes a big speech about her father, who watches her naked in the bathroom and then commits suicide on the railway lines. This event is never described, nor is Belle’s death from cancer a few weeks later. Even in the four acknowledged autobiographical pieces, which conclude this volume, we never see Munro’s own mother die and neither Munro nor her readers go to the funeral. In ‘The Eye’, Munro’s child-minder, who is given to dancing, gets herself run over (offstage) on the way home. We visit the corpse to say goodbye and the cadaver winks at the narrator. But even this suggestive moment is domesticated and tamed. Nothing is allowed to be terrifying. Death, violent or gradual, is all around us in Munro’s stories, but never under our noses. Death lurks out of sight, waiting. 

Short fiction is often the space in which writers take risks. The definition of a short story hangs on the story’s relationship to the reader and the act of reading: a short story should be read in one sitting. A novel and its characters may accompany you through part of

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RLF - March