Dear Life: Stories

  • By Alice Munro
  • Knopf
  • 336 pp.

The nature of romantic impulse and the disorienting shifts in desire fuel this extraordinary collection.

Desire can be mysterious. Why do some attractions hold strong while others dissolve for no particular reason?  The nature of romantic impulse and the disorienting shifts in the direction of desire provides the central focus of Dear Life, Alice Munro’s extraordinary new collection of stories. Here, accidental encounters alter the characters’ internal landscape, often leaving them stunned.

The stories often feature trains. In “To Reach Japan” a young married poet meets a journalist at a horrible party where she feels ignored and disconnected. Sometime later, this leads her to travel with her small child on a train to Toronto, and what happens on the journey itself transforms her emotional destination.

In another story, a soldier jumps suddenly from a train to find himself in “an immediate flock of new surroundings, asking for your attention in a way they never did when you were sitting on the train and just looking out the window… coming to some conclusions about you from vantage points you couldn’t see.” With his reckless jump the character shifts the story’s direction. Then his story shifts again, never heading in a direction the reader anticipates.

All the stories in Dear Life depict characters whose emotional journeys are at odds with their eventual destinations. In the hands of a less skilled writer this would come across as an endless stream of red herrings. Too much story here. Cut out all the detours. But Munro is a master craftsman and she manages her shifts superbly, making them crucial, even though these very shifts make the center of her stories elusive. As you read, you can never quite catch hold. Like quicksilver, the center of each story constantly eludes you.

In “Amundsen,” a young teacher with a new job at a sanatorium gets off a train in a Canadian landscape that feels to her like the Russian steppes. The descriptions are detailed and evocative. But we are already deep into the seventh page when the focus totally changes. “I had not been there more than a day before all the events of the first day seemed unique and unlikely,” Munro writes.

Where is the emotional center of “Amundsen”?  As the reader, you never really know. And the amazing part is you don’t really care, because you are invited into an emotional puzzle. Like the character, you find yourself disconnected, jarred, feeling as she does when she leaves Amundsen on the train, “dazed and full of disbelief.”

It isn’t only lovers who are undone by desire. Children get caught in the crossfire too. In “Gravel” an older sister struggles with her parents’ separation. Her efforts to create drama around the family dog end tragically. The younger sister, and narrator of this story, is haunted by a moment of disconnection, when she could have influenced the outcome of events. Instead she “sat down and waited for the next thing to happen.”

Similarly, in “To Reach Japan” a different child is caught in an equally chilling moment between railway carriages, her “eyes wide open and mouth slightly open, amazed and alone.”

Desire can be messy and unreasonable. It springs up like a weed and often chokes a more flourishing relationship. For Munro, desire overcomes people even when they don’t particularly care about what their lovers say or do. In “To Reach Japan” Greta isn’t interested in what the journalist at the party writes about; she can barely remember his name. In “Leaving Maverley” Isabel suddenly leaves her husband for a man who “had been a mid-upper gunner – a position that Isabel could never get straight in her head.” In “Corrie” we aren’t told why the characters are drawn to each other romantically, but it doesn’t matter because we believe their relationship. We feel the connection. As in “Train” one character’s eyes meet another’s, “and a certain piece of knowledge passed between them.”

This might suggest that desire and romantic love are terribly superficial. In “Haven” the narrator comes to understand that “devotion to anything, if you were female, could make you ridiculous.” Except that Alice Munro clearly believes otherwise. Her beautifully crafted stories take hold of the whole messy confusion of desire and handle it with reverence and delicacy. As one of her characters puts it, “Nothing changes really about love.” As you read you long for desire to win out in the end. When you finish reading these stories, you find yourself reeling, hanging on, as it were, for dear life.

Amanda Holmes Duffy is a fiction writer who teaches literature and writing at Northern Virginia Community College. Her most recent story appears in Main Street Rag’s new anthology Keeping Track: Fiction of Lists.

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