Books · Gender · GSRM/LGBTQIA

Dear Alice

Dear Life: StoriesDear Life: Stories by Alice Munro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where do I begin? My second Munro and I feel that familiar sensation, like feeling for the barely palpable edge of the sticky tape on the roll, a way in, when everything feels like the centre, a cycle that’s encircled me, that I’ve had with me for so long I can’t imagine either end.

It’s not as if the stories are all the same or blur into each other – far from it in fact! The mood and mode of each is so crisply distinct I can imagine Munro writing in an organised study, selecting from the options as from coloured paints lined up on a shelf – shall we have ‘brooding pastoral’ with a splash of ‘breathless passion’?

There is structural variation too, Munro even amuses (and terrifies) us with a storyform so hackneyed that EFL exam handbooks warn against it: the ‘I woke up and it was all a dream’ trope. Wait. Here’s a tiny ridge, let’s peel it. The edge Munro presents us with here is the uncertainty of reality and of identity when memory becomes unstable, thus tripping up the trope: we cannot awaken from this half-dream. The threat of dissolution is softened by the darkly comic, but finally heartening story ‘Dolly’, which I read aloud to my mum in the car. We both thought it would make a great screenplay.

Most of these stories have keener edges, over which we peer into less final abysses. In most of them, a woman is punished for transgressing the rigid norms of conservative small-town society. The means of correction are many and varied, all too often they are internal – the self-coercing mechanisms of patriarchal socialisation kick in. There’s a truthfulness, a wry rightness to the detail that has me constantly nodding: that’s the way it goes.

But plotwise it isn’t the way it goes, it’s always fresh and surprising, the page yields up a shock, the heart drops a beat and races. It’s only the texture of everyday life that is so utterly real, so well worn and worn well on the strong frames of Munro’s direct, unadorned sentences, her many quiet, clear voices that allow precise evocation, and make a calm and light background for strange small horrors and delights to leap out from all the more vividly.

Generational gaps are important in a collection that examines a period of shifting cultural values. There are a few young characters imbued with potentially rebellious, transformative energy, especially disruptive, gregarious, voluble Mary in ‘Amundsen’, who, although she transforms the narrator Vivien into Miss Hyde, seems to make generous efforts to preserve her threatened vivacity. The narrator of ‘Haven’, a tale in which the deadly patriarchal morality of a passing era is deftly explored, also has a certain energy and freedom about her. These lively, unrestrained young girls remind me of The Madwoman in the Attic in which Gilbert and Gubar share their divination of a sad yearning on the part of C19th women authors for lively spirited girls like Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights to be able to grow up into autonomy and subjectivity, instead of being imprisoned by sex roles.

In ‘Haven’ as in other stories, the reader is not spared discomfort. I found myself anguished by even subtle hints of the narrator’s increased socialisation into patriarchy. Munro is not afraid to offer the unpleasant; her tactic is to confront it, and there is a therapeutic value in this, a learning that unpleasant things exist, which helps to deal with them or put them in their place. In one of the concluding semi-autobiographical pieces, ‘Voices’, the narrator shares how her father helped her to deal with terrifying thoughts of killing her sister by telling her that ‘everyone thinks things like that’, reassuring her thus that the unwanted thought is not an intention. Munro’s stories sometimes deal with unwanted thoughts and panic in helpful ways.

‘Pride’ and ‘Corrie’ deal with sexuality around physical disabilities, making space in the discussion for differences of gender and social class. Cultural assumptions about male desire are thrown into relief, as are those about women as empathic carers. ‘Train’ forms something of a counterpoint to these stories in that is deals with an apparently asexual man. Compulsory heterosexuality keeps him more or less on the run from one safe-space to another, yet such freedom is clearly a gendered prerogative – he finds work anywhere and is (explicitly) assumed to be trustworthy. A lone woman would not have such mobility, unless, perhaps, she were a sex-worker, which would come at the cost of social exclusion.

In general the stories have harmony with each other, in their shades of like and unlike. Occasionally there is a sunny clearing, as in the loving older couple in ‘Leaving Maverly’. The natural world, beautifully sketched, is ever-present and significant (sometimes it seems that everything is significant in Munro, every detail has a polysemous aura, which discussion helped me to read), though arguably it only once, at the end of ‘Pride’ intervenes and utters the last, transcendent, cryptic, unanswerable word.

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