A week after the announcement that Alice Munro had won the Nobel Prize for her beautiful, evocative short stories, I found her most recent collection, Dear Life, on the “new books” shelf of my local library. Ideal reading for a fall vacation.
I realized that I’d already enjoyed some of these stories in The New Yorker. I re-visited these, and ventured into new territory with others. I love how short stories offer so many opportunities for character, action, and scene in such an economy of words and space. With a short story, we can accept that not all mysteries will be explained, or all plot points tied up with big bows. Yet sometimes it doesn’t seem possible that so much has happened—lives examined and found wanting, or enthralling, or bewildering—across so few pages.
A number of stories in this collection involve the naiveté of girls and young women and how the world opens up to them, or thwarts them—or even continues to mystify them—as they mature.
“Voices,” one of four stories that Munro claims are her most autobiographical, focuses on a childhood memory of two British servicemen who exude an erotic chivalry in how they address a young prostitute: “the young men treated her as if she was someone who deserved never to have encountered one rough moment, someone who rightfully should have been petted and pleasured and have heads bowed before her.” While the narrator questions almost every aspect of this memory, she has also pondered over the men’s voices for a long, long time, because of what they suggested about being “worthy of love.”
In “Dolly,” an older woman has a jealous reaction to meeting the long-lost lover of her even older partner (he isn’t her husband, officially: “there’s so many doing that now, isn’t there?”). This comes as a surprise, because “there was an assumption that nothing more was going to happen in our lives.” When she decamps to a nearby town, she stops at a restaurant: “I went into the washroom and was surprised how much like myself I looked.”
That’s one of my favorite lines from this collection—one that I think encapsulates the allure of Munro’s stories. Her narrators and protagonists are often unsure of themselves, of their relationships, and of their places in the world. But they are usually aware of themselves, and their stories grow out of that striving toward awareness, no matter how fuzzy or deluded.
It’s a joy to read Munro’s precise and persuasive prose; it always feels so assured—as if she hadn’t the slightest qualm about the rightness of each word and sentence. (A tribute to her artistry.) The stories may consider self-doubt, shifting allegiances, murky pasts, and unsettled futures, but the hand that wrote the stories is steady.