Review: Dear Life

BY Aparna Nagraj IN A NO COMMENTS YET short stories

By Alice Munro. Grade A

I must confess that I was never a fan of short stories. Short stories, I felt, are like quickies. They do serve the purpose, but hey, it’s not the real deal! I prefer the longer format as the build-up, character development and setting are nuances that I cherish, constructing it all in my head. But then I came across Dear Life by Nobel laureate Alice Munro, and I could only wonder at what I have been missing out on!

Dear Life brings to mind long train journeys, and not just because some of the stories are actually set against train journeys. These journeys are normally marked by people you know almost nothing about, except for what little snippets they share with you. For that short span of time, you are privy to a small part of their life, and they to yours. You would mostly neither get to know more about them, nor feel the need to. Dear Life is filled with such people, and their regaling stories.

Dear LIfe

This is a collection of 14 short stories, the last 4 being ‘autobiographical in feeling’ according to the author, mostly set in the bygone era of countryside Canada. War is a recurring theme, and so are trains and chronic diseases. But you’d be completely wrong if you think it is depressing or negative. Far from it, the stories are breezy celebrations of life’s myriad hues – the ordinary people and the ordinary moments that make the everyday stand out.

A short story can be a challenge for both the writer and the reader. But Dear Life is a case study in how a writer can make each character and landscape unique with even the shortest description. You can make out distinctions in the language each character uses, and societal norms, and it all comes so naturally that a reader can even make a guess at the period the story is set in, without the author mentioning it.

The most striking feature of this book is its devilishly simple narrative. If this can be called fiction, it is completely different from the perfect photographic descriptions provided by narrators in other works of fiction. Here, it’s like listening to any everyday person narrating a story, starting at the middle of nowhere, adding places and people that are inconsequential but just happened to exist in the frame. It is also mostly anachronic, just the way someone would recount an incident, going back and forth in time as they remember more details. Just when you are wondering where a plot is leading, something strikes at you so deep that it sets you thinking down a new path. Case in point – A neighbor is described thus –

“Roly Grain, his name was, and he does not 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.”

Only life, indeed! The narrative is so natural and rich that you fill in the details that Munro only implies. That, simply put, is the beauty of these stories, and the reason why you wouldn’t read it as fast as their course of 30 pages suggest. You would want to savor each story as long as it lasts, with no clear beginning or end, knowing that there is no one conclusion you can draw. There are no gift wraps and happy endings, but then there are no endings here. Because you realize that this is how things are with life, and for once, not connecting all threads, not knowing how it all ends – is perfectly alright.

Indeed, fiction can be so much more. Dear Life shows how.

About Aparna Nagraj

Aparna is 29 and works at a math factory in Bangalore. When not trying to stay afloat in the sea of statistics, she loves to read. She reads anything from a toothpaste carton to religious texts, though fantasy is where she feels at home. Her other current activities include watching movies, commuting daily to the ends of Bangalore, and sending up a daily prayer to keep GRR Martin alive and healthy, so he can finish writing her beloved Ice and Fire saga.