Updated Sunday, December 2, 2012 at 07:20 AM
Canadian author Alice Munro, now 81, is one of those writers who in addressing such specific turf in her fiction (small-town Ontario, with side excursions to Toronto and British Columbia) creates tales that couldn’t be more universal in their resonance. She feels like a “world writer” as much as García Márquez and Chekhov do — surely one reason why, in 2009, she won the Man Booker International Prize for her lifetime body of work.
That said, she’s far from predictable in the turns her stories take. After exploring some surprisingly gothic territory involving murderers, cultists, madmen — and the occasional madwoman — in her previous book, “Too Much Happiness,” Munro is back in the realm of the subtle with her brand new collection.
Still, “Dear Life,” after serving up nine ingeniously crafted tales, delivers a shocker of its own.
Its last four pieces are grouped under the title “Finale” and introduced by Munro as though she’s taking her leave of us. She notes that they’re “not quite stories,” that they’re “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact,” and that they’re “the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.”
I have no way of knowing the personal circumstances behind Munro’s unusual comments on these four genre-blurring pieces. But “The Eye,” “Night,” “Voices” and “Dear Life” themselves are marvels.
Munro is right. They’re “not quite stories.” Instead, they’re intricately parsed memories, revisiting Munro’s semirural Ontario childhood (familiar from her earlier writings, especially “Lives of Girls and Women”) with an instinct and intuition sharper than ever.
“The Eye” zeros in on Munro’s relationship with her mother, starting with her realization in earliest girlhood of “how largely my mother’s notions about me might differ from my own.” (The occasion: Munro’s mother, after giving birth to a son, insists that 5-year-old Alice always wanted a little brother — information that’s news to young Alice.)
After summoning a vivid if unlikely memory from her first brush with death, Munro closes with the realization that it’s not just her mother’s notions of her that don’t match her perception of herself as she hits her teens. It’s now her adolescent self that, “with a dim sort of hole in my insides,” no longer believes in what her younger self held true.
“Night” addresses a different kind of primal memory, concerning a taboo thought that sneaks up on her one sleepless night: “I could strangle my little sister, who was asleep in the bunk below me and whom I loved more than anybody in the world.” The thought so contradicts her notion of who she is that it sends her into a tailspin of self-fear. It takes a wise father’s voice, calmly speaking an unexpected truth, to bring her out of it.
“Voices” and “Dear Life” move forward in memory. The first takes in a social scandal (and her mother’s reaction to it) in her small town. The second tries to get at the truth concerning an eccentric, frightening neighbor and the history behind the house where Munro grew up. Both deliver complex mixes of firsthand observation, secondhand knowledge and retrospective realization, along with a candid self-knowledge. These may not be “stories” per se, but they’re remarkable pieces of writing.
The first nine tales in the book, presented straightforwardly as fiction, are just as impressive. In them, Munro-the-social-historian and Munro-the-novelist-in-miniature both come into play. Ranging in setting from a tuberculosis sanitarium to a factory town in economic downturn, they encompass a wide variety of always-unpredictable characters — young, old, middle-aged — caught in circumstances that have the bright erratic flow of life itself.
Munro plays fluidly with coincidence, chronology and hindsight, reveling in a virtuosic narrative technique that, far from being mere trickery, has exactly the skeleton-key qualities needed to unlock the door to any room of the imagination she chooses.
Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer: firstname.lastname@example.org