Saturday, 6 September 2014

The Lives of Others

In 2013 Canadian writer Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. This was the culmination of a long list of awards and honours including the Governor General's Award (x3), Giller Prize (x2), Man Booker Prize and much, much more.

Author of collections like Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), Lives of Girls and Women (1971), Friends of My Youth (1990), and Open Secrets (1994), Munro has been hailed as one of the world's greatest short-story writers.  

I have long been a fan of Munro's ability to weave a meticulously crafted tale from the seemingly ordinary aspects of daily existence. I recently enjoyed her 2012 collection Dear Life. Many of these fourteen stories had been published elsewhere (such as in the New Yorker) and as such I had read one or two before. But in reading/re-reading her tales, I was reminded of the genius of Munro's craft. In my view, there are two ways in which Munro captivates her readers.

First, she is able to create a full, vibrant tale in about 20-30 pages, constructing each story with precision. She grabs characters at some point in their life, throws them together and sees what happens. She doesn't waste too much time on what happened before the reader arrives, and doesn't linger on what would happen next. 

Which brings me to the second aspect of her ability - Munro always knows when to end a story. She stops and leaves the remainder of the tale to the reader's imagination. For example, in "To Reach Japan" Greta travels across Canada by train to Toronto to meet a man that she has been infatuated with. Greta arrives at Union Station and he is there to meet her. Munro simply writes "She just stood there waiting for whatever had to come next" and the reader can fill in the blanks. 

Throughout Dear Life are stories of love and loss, friendship and betrayal, the stuff of human existence. Whether it is a young teacher jilted by her lover in "Amundsen", a girl who watches her sister drown in a water-filled quarry in "Gravel", or a police officer who cares for his terminally ill wife in "Leaving Maverley", the characters are real and keenly drawn. We readers inhabit their world for a brief time and inhabit their lives. 

I also loved Dear Life for it reminded me of my childhood in Canada. The descriptions of rural Ontario, references to The Friendly Giant and the Royal Ontario Museum, and name-dropping familiar places like Goderich and Kapuskasing, added much nostalgic joy to my reading. Thank you Ms Munro.