There’s always talk that Alice Munro – let’s call her the greatest living short-fiction writer in English, so you know right away where I stand on her work in general and this book in particular – is about to stop publishing. She’s 81, born in the same decade as the late John Updike and the late Raymond Carver, just a few years after William Trevor and James Salter.
Dear Life is her 14th book, which means she’s published many more than Carver and many fewer than Trevor. Maybe the “last book ever” story is the invention of a publicist, eager for an angle that isn’t Munro Publishes Another Great Story Collection. But this particular collection has its own twist.
There are 10 new stories here, each dense and satisfying in a way some people call novelistic, enticing us with first lines like “All this happened in the 70s, though in that town and other small towns like it, the 70s were not as we picture them now”.
The collection also includes four pieces – in a section with the dramatic title “Finale” – that aren’t stories exactly. In a short and enigmatic foreword to this “Finale”, Munro describes the pieces as “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact”.
All explore incidents or people from Munro’s childhood or adolescence. They have the feel of memoir, sometimes impressionistic and hazy about time, sometimes dipping into the present tense. The most prominent characters are Munro’s parents: her hard-working, plain talking father, his hopes and his pelt-farm a casualty of the Depression, and her vaguely discontented mother, unpopular because of her contrived gentility, her all-too-evident aspirations.
In these pieces, Munro is no longer the sure storyteller. She interrogates her memories, the unsolved puzzles of her childhood – “Some questions come to mind now that didn’t then” – and her own judgments of the past. “Did more appendixes have to be taken out then?” she asks, recalling the way “there seemed to be never a childbirth, or a burst appendix, or any other drastic physical event that did not occur simultaneously with a snowstorm.” Or “Why do I say ominous?” she wonders after describing her mother’s “powdery yet ominous smell that inhabited all the rooms even when she wasn’t in them”.
Perhaps this is the fiction writer nearing the end of a lifetime of storytelling, doubting her own ability to speak the truth. Stories offer so many more possibilities. The mysterious man who lived in what looked like a “dwarf’s house in a story” near Munro’s childhood home was called Roly Grain, but she tells us he won’t “have any further part in what I’m writing now, in spite of his troll’s name, because this is not a story, only life”.
For a realist writer like Munro, setting most of her work in places she knows intimately – small-town rural Ontario, the rainy coast of British Columbia, the long-distance Canadian trains that stop everywhere and nowhere, heat-swamped farmhouses, frozen lakes – real life is her raw material, but it’s “only life”, after all. Even in these works of memoir, she simply claims to be summoning up her own part “in feeling” rather than fact. Fiction remains her great gift and her great love.
Munro declares these four pieces to be “the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life.” Final words, indeed. Is she to be trusted? Are these really the last things she has to say about her childhood? Who knows? The master storyteller is an unreliable narrator of her own life. Or so she says.
DEAR LIFE, by Alice Munro (Jonathan Cape, $49.99).
Paula Morris’s novel Rangatira was fiction winner at the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Awards.