I had already read some of these stories in the New Yorker, but I was glad to encounter them again. Each story in Dear Life is a gem; each carries with it the freight of human longing and confusion. They invariably reinforce the belief that our fellow human beings are alternately, kind, cruel, arbitrary, hypocritical, and just plain strange. Mostly they are unpredictable, and in some cases, unknowable.
In “Night,” insomnia engenders dangerous thoughts on the part of a young girl – or the thoughts cause the insomnia, it’s hard to tell. The danger seems real enough, until the narrator’s father, a plainspoken man, defuses the situation with the most anodyne of comments: “‘People have those kinds of thoughts sometimes.’” That’s all it took: “…on that breaking morning he gave me just what I needed to hear and what I was even to forget about soon enough.” And most importantly: “From then on I could sleep.”
In “Amundsen,” a young woman named Vivien Hyde travels to a sanitorium, where children ill with tuberculosis are treated. She’s been hired as a teacher for the resident patients. This is during World War Two, a period which obviously resonates for Ms. Munro, as she sets many of her stories during that time. The ‘San,’ as it’s called, is in remote countryside. It is deep winter, and Vivien, a city girl from Toronto, is stunned by what she sees:
Brittle-looking birch trees with black marks on their white bark, and some kind of small untidy evergreens rolled up like sleepy bears. The frozen lake not level but mounded along the shore, as if the waves had turned to ice in the act of falling….
But the birch bark not white after all as you got closer. Grayish yellow, grayish blue, gray.
So still, so immense an enchantment.
Once Vivien gets to the San, though, the enchantment is pretty well broken. And then she meets the man in charge of the place. He is Dr. Fox. In their first conversation, he gets her good and flustered: “He was evidently the sort of person who posed questions that were traps for you to fall into.” She’s right about him, but that’s not his worst fault. Not by a long shot, as Vivien is soon to find out.
Alice Munro writes in a style that is almost completely devoid of adornment. As these are short stories, not full length novels, she has but a limited space in which to create a world. Precision is therefore vital. As with poetry, the choice of words is crucial. I love the way the young woman in “Night”sums up the weather in her part of the world: “Our climate had no dallying, no mercies.”
One feels a maximum impact in a small space.
Munro’s stories sometimes begin as though she’d already begun telling them before you, the reader, wandered onto the scene.
At that time we were living beside a gravel pit. (“Gravel”)
Some people get everything wrong. (“Haven”)
This is a slow train anyway, and it has slowed some more for the curve. (“Train”)
That fall there had been some discussion of death. (“Dolly”)
I always feel as though I’m being signaled to insert myself into the action as swiftly as possible. No problem: I’m there.
In “Leaving Maverley,” a man’s wife dies after a long hospitalization. He had known this was coming, and yet “…the emptiness in place of her was astounding.”
She had existed and now she did not. Not at all, as if not ever. And people hurried around, as if this outrageous fact could be overcome by making sensible arrangements. He, too, obeyed the customs, signing where he was told to sign, arranging – as they said – for the remains.
What an excellent word – “remains.” Like something left to dry out in sooty layers in a cupboard.
The juxtaposition of the quotidian and the profound put me in mind of Emily Dickinson’s poem:
After great pain a formal feeling comes–
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
And yesterday–or centuries before?
The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.
This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.
There is no way to cope with the vagaries of fate, except to hang on for dear life.