“People have thoughts they’d sooner not have. It happens in life.”
Alice Munro, Dear Life (2012)
Life comes with regret, something the characters of Alice Munro’s short story collection Dear Life know all too well. The people in these stories are ordinary. It’s like peering through a window into someone’s living room and watching them go about their day-to-day life. In thirty pages or less, Munro sets out the landscape of an entire life in prose that is clear, concise and unapologetic.
Many of these characters lives are in transit, sometimes physically as in To Reach Japan, Amundsen and Train, where all three central characters find themselves on board a train, but also on a psychological level. These are characters who are not just moving from one place to another but are running from their problems, hiding from reality, taking the plunge. Sometimes they end up back at square one. In Gravel, Leaving Maverly and Haven characters break from the social constraints of small town life, but also from the stifling control of religious father and a controlling husband. As well as revelling in their liberation, Munro also presents the consequences when freedom turns to recklessness.
A particularly poignant story is In Sight of the Lake, in which a woman suffering from the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s goes in search of the doctor with whom she has an appointment the next day. The story is littered with her thoughts of how to rationalise her confusion and forgetfulness to others. As the story progresses you realise that more than anything else, she’s trying to convince herself.
The last four stories of the collection are more autobiographical in nature, linked by the narrator’s tense relationship with her mother, a mother who is out of place in the community in which she lives, and a father who she feels more in sync with but who beats her as a punishment for bad behaviour. Other recurring details, such as her mother’s degenerating condition and the chair propped under the back door, and the house itself indicate that these are an amalgamation of story and memory, toeing the line between fact and fiction.