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Posts Tagged ‘The View from Castle Rock’

DearI always read the cartoons in The New Yorker first, except when there’s a short story by Alice Munro. She comes first, always. But as I noted in a 2001 column for the Sentinel, “Let us now praise Alice Munro,” I’m running out of ways to do so without repeating myself.

In 1990, I called her “the most generous of storytellers. She can capture an entire life within a few pages, and many of her stories open to encompass more stories, other lives.” Four years and another collection later, I noted that “love and loss, fate and choice are the seeds with which she sows a rich harvest.” Her 1996 Selected Stories was “a cause for celebration,” as were subsequent collections by this “Canadian Chekhov.” I rather regret that last rave because really there’s no comparing Munro to anyone but herself.

Her new collection, Dear Life (Knopf, digital galley via edelweiss), is everything I’ve come to expect from Munro and more. This time, the remarkable stories of seemingly unremarkable lives that suddenly turn on a dime — “Amundsen,” “Haven,” “Train” — are followed by a section dubbed “Finale.” Munro explains, “The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.”

Well! Because Munro’s stories often deal with the memory of events in small-town and rural Ontario where she grew up, I’ve often wondered how autobiographical they might be.  Munro, however, has always said she makes things up, although she did draw on her family’s Scottish immigrant history in writing The View from Castle Rock.  Still, it’s interesting to read the pieces in Dear Life as both story and memoir, trying to discern the difference.

Really, I can’t tell. The lives of Munro’s characters are rarely tidy, emotions are always mixed. She’s expert at mining “the truth in fiction.” Her narrators can be unreliable, although, as a writer, she is essentially astute. So, does it really matter that the young schoolteacher in “Amundsen,” who is courted and then jilted by a doctor, is wholly invented, or that the girl in the last story is Alice recalling an incident told by her mother? Both have the quality of lived experience.

“We say of some things that they cannot be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do — we do it all the time.”

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