Critics have said of Alice Munro’s short stories that they have the sweep of a novel told in much fewer words. That’s high praise, given the short story form’s challenge is to capture broader truths in the context of a scene or two. Munro’s short stories have always strived for more.
One of the pre-eminent short story writers of our time, Munro’s latest collection, “Dear Life,” published in 2012, features long journeys (both physical and emotional), lost desires, restlessness, sibling rivalries, dreams unfulfilled, and unrequited love. The lessons learned from these tales are often ambiguous, as is the case in “Corrie.” A rich young woman with a bad leg seduces a married man and carries on a long affair with him. Early on, the man tells her they are being blackmailed. The conclusion is both satisfying and morally fuzzy. In “To Reach Japan,” a fledgling poet whose engineer-husband is on a long-term assignment finds herself on a train from western Canada to Toronto (with her young daughter in tow) toward a hoped-for affair with a journalist.
“Haven” explores the fault line between domestic bliss and a sheltered wife’s desire to connect with people outside of her marriage to a rigid, conservative doctor. “Pride” features a protagonist with a physical deformity who leads a cloistered life as an accountant until Oneida, a childhood friend, whose wealthy family loses its dignity after the patriarch steals bank funds for a doomed scheme, breaks through his emotional cocoon.
“Leaving Maverly” is an endearing, sad tale about a police officer and his terminally ill wife. The officer meets a teen-age girl from a strict religious family whom he escorts home from her job as a screen projectionist. While he remains faithful to his wife the girl runs off with the local minister’s son. Years later, he encounters her again after his wife has died and there is a possibility of a connection between the two.
The last four stories are autobiographical and give insight into Munro’s upbringing in rural Ontario province. Her mother, an elegant woman, develops Parkinson’s disease and her father struggles to keep their fox farm profitable. In looking back, Munro is unsentimental and somewhat confessional, but ever the objective narrator. She writes, “I did not go home for my mother’s last illness or her funeral. I had two small children and nobody in Vancouver to leave them with. We could barely have afforded the trip, and my husband had a contempt for formal behavior, but why blame it on him? I felt the same. 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.”
In a recent interview, Munro, 81, hinted that “Dear Life” might be her last book. Here’s one reader who hopes she has more to say.