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Dear life

Review by Thomas Peak and Susanne Gjonnes

Why do we read?  To think, to experience and most of all to feel. Perhaps. Munroe’s final collection of short stories Dear Life achieves all of this in abundance.  With characteristic subtleness, a refined and homely style, the stories in this collection penetrate into the reader with a sad yet fulfilled sense of engagement with ordinary life.  This book ultimately confronts one with the routine cruelty, joy, disappointment and harmony of everyday experience.

Dear Life is a collection of short stories from the Canadian Nobel Laureate for 2013, some previously published, and concludes with a number of autobiographical reflections.  With most of the stories set in interwar Canada, the characters are usually girls and women; either children, young, in their adolescence, as well as women who have already established themselves.

These are stories and settings that most of us can relate to; simple, un-crowded and familiar. The topics covered are day-to-day themes. Love inevitably runs through all of the stories, be that the intense and brief or the established and long-term kind. Jealousy is another topic that runs deeply through, and especially the jealousy felt between siblings.  The calm pervasiveness of these themes, often creeping up with an intensity belied by seemingly mundane contexts and settings, can serve as a useful reminder to the reader that life, our life, is happening right now.  In Munroe’s stories we can feel the urgency that the characters themselves sometimes miss.  We can see hopes, dreams, and expectations pass by unchecked, and we are prompted to stop and ask ‘is this happening to me?’

And what is so extraordinary about Munro’s writing is how she manages to draw you quickly into the characters, their stories and their emotions. A few pages can impart a richness for characters and circumstances for which most other authors need a whole book, if they even manage then. Each story is so satisfying that you can leave it there.

For us, Munro’s book was a break away from contemporary literature where everything is more, where authors need to fill their books with money, violence and sex to keep an audience.  She represents the type of author where the words and the personalities are in the centre. And having read other of Munro’s short stories, we would say that the best way to read her books is gradually, digesting one story at a time, and leaving a few days between each. If not, they can feel a bit too similar, and the profound richness of each can quickly become lost.