It is nothing particularly groundbreaking or controversial to announce that, at eighty-one years old, Alice Munro is still one of the most brilliant writers in Canada. Unlike Margaret Atwood, probably the peer who invites the most comparison, Alice Munro does not experiment freely with form.
Apart from one novel, published in 1971, Munro deals solely in short stories, mostly about women and mostly set in rural areas. There is never anything of the fantastic about her fiction; her stories are about real people dealing with real, even mundane occurrences. Sometimes nothing at all “happens,” in the traditional sense of the word. I have read dozens of Alice Munro stories, and though each is familiar and recognizable, none seems repetitive.
The stories in Dear Life, Munro’s latest collection, are no exception. Each story is recognizably “Munrovian,” but no story seems like something I’ve read before. Munro can do more in a forty-page story than most authors can do in a three-hundred-page novel. Artful and concise, she tells us, if not everything there is to know about her characters, at least everything we need to know. She provides a snapshot of someone at a particular time and place in their life, and there is a sense of deep understanding that each person has a fuller existence beyond what we see on the page. Some of her stories span several years, and some take place on a single night. In either case we are offered a glimpse of the inner life of what could be a neighbour, friend, or relative.
Many of the stories in Dear Life deal with age, illness, and death: a man cares for his comatose wife, slowly visiting less and less frequently over the years; a woman with dementia dreams of a garden and a kind stranger; a couple in their sunset years deals with the threat of infidelity. Given this, it’s perhaps fitting that I happened to be reading the collection the week my grandfather died at the age of 95, having suffered from Alzheimer’s for nearly a decade.
If Alice Munro deals with the mundane occurrences of everyday life, what could be more mundane or everyday than death? “Leaving Maverley” describes the experience of losing a loved one after a long illness: not unexpected, but still somehow shocking. As I read that particular story on a subway train, hours after learning that my grandfather had passed, I felt that if anyone can put into words the odd mix of regret and relief at such a time, Alice Munro can.
At twenty-six, I’m more or less certain that I know everything; Alice Munro’s creativity, wit, wisdom, and insight show me how much there is yet to learn.