Dear Life by Alice Munro

My first by Munro despite a taste for short stories. Perhaps this is not a representative collection, but I am surprised that she is compared with Chekhov, who has a deft touch entirely lacking here. The theme of these is the plight of women in the period coming into what we now see as their liberation, much as the concept may be moot. It’s about the pain of transition. This is set against a backdrop of domesticity which is balefully presented with the dour outlook, one is tempted to say, that comes of being too old. I met a friend at the doctor’s once who gloomily told me ‘He always says I’m good for eighty, but who wants to be good for eighty?’ Let’s say this group of stories is not exactly bursting with positivity.

My first thought is to compare her with Lessing, having read Lessing short stories recently, also written in her dotage. But, then, Lessing has that driving political angle all the time that both energises her writing and makes her a critic where Munro is merely observer. Now that I have that down on paper, I don’t think that is quite it either. Munro clearly has opinions, she simply presents them in a more oblique manner. She IS political, but not as overtly so.

Then there is Tyler, the other obvious comparison. Tyler writes of nothing but domesticity and the relationships of that ordinary part of life, but she could not do it in a more different way, that is, without any sense of judgement entering her work. Her partiality is to her characters, not to anything the least sociological. Her neutrality in this regard is such that it is hard even to date or place her stories. Yes, I realise they do actually have dates and places, but they don’t weigh on you. Somehow I read Munro with the thought forefront that it was about Canadian women in a period, in a place. I was not able to shed a tear for Munro’s women (or men, for that matter, though they are generally the baddies in some way that would prevent that), indeed, they irritated me as much as induced sympathy. Tyler simply doesn’t have these constraints, and perhaps that is why it is so easy to weep at the end of Tyler, you weep and you scarcely know why. With Munro’s collection here it would be all too easy to understand why, and perhaps that is exactly why you don’t.

I hope this doesn’t sound too negative, it isn’t meant to, it hasn’t discouraged me from trying some more of her work.

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