by Alice Munro
Knopf, 319 pp., $26.95
Alice Munro is not only revered, she is cherished, her stories handled lovingly, turned over and over, gazed at and studied and breathed in with something approaching awe. She has never, over the years, written the way any of her contemporaries have. Her stories are open, overflowing with life, unlike the curt and obscure minimalist stories so fashionable in the Seventies and Eighties. But no one could accuse her of being traditional, either. With all their fullness of narrative and character, her stories are elegant and sharp, pared down—sometimes shockingly so. Her new collection, Dear Life, is as rich and astonishing as anything she has done before.
Munro’s stories, in this book as in her earlier work, tend to be geographically concentrated, often based in a small town in Huron County, Ontario, or, sometimes, in Vancouver, British Columbia. They can, on the other hand, cover a vast expanse of temporal ground, passing through years, decades, eras, in a paragraph, even in a sentence. There are dramatic events: sudden deaths, disappearances, reappearances, beatings, misunderstandings, and improbable coincidences—but the stories do not often revolve around them.
This is one of the many, many delights of an Alice Munro story—the way she makes the ordinary jump out, like a lithe, muscular, startled cat, and the way she lets the extraordinary quietly take its place in line, hands folded, head down. A death will not so much happen as suddenly, matter-of-factly, have happened, somewhere in that white space between the paragraph you are reading and the one you just finished. She is the most elusive stylist going—I know of one celebrated writer who drew shapes for each section of a Munro story hoping that way to discover something of their secret—and the most satisfying. Munro is eighty-one years old and claims that this will be her last book. Dear Life is so full of momentum that this does not seem possible.
In “To Reach Japan,” a young wife and mother named Greta tells us of her husband’s escape from Soviet Czechoslovakia as a child: he was carried over some mountains, whose name Greta can never remember, by his mother.
“I’ve read stories like that,” Greta said, when Peter first told her about this. She explained how in the stories the baby would start to cry and invariably had to be smothered or strangled so that the noise did not endanger the whole illegal party.
There is no “invariably” in an Alice Munro story. Even when she is working with a character or theme or relationship she has worked with before, especially when she does, she makes us aware of the variable, the infinite variations life can throw at themes and landscapes and towns and girls and women and men and boys, the chance that propels every story. “In Leaving Maverley,” a night watchman named Ray is asked to walk a girl home from the movie …