Friday, December 28, 2012

Fiona Kidman's Favourite Book of 2012

From: Fiona Kidman

A new book by Canadian writer Alice Munro is always a cause for celebration. Her publications span the past forty-five years. Each time one appears, roughly every three years, it is hard to believe that it will be as good as what has gone before. But at eighty-one years of age, Munro has delivered Dear Life¸ another collection of short stories that astound with their wisdom and insights into the human condition, the mysterious working of the heart, the way love rewards and bewilders her characters.
            These fourteen stories come with a difference from previous collections. The last four are not quite stories, she tells us, for they are autobiographical, in her words ‘the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life.’ This section is called “Finale” and from this we must take it that she is bidding some kind of farewell.
Do these four stories surprise us then? Yes and no. Throughout them runs the narrative thread that has illuminated so many of her stories from the past: growing up in rural Ontario, the daughter of a silver fox fur farmer who loses his money and a mother who would like a better station in life, but succumbs early to Parkinson’s Disease, the revelation of sexual secrets, the shameful beatings she received for misbehaviour from her father. All of these elements have appeared before, particularly the beatings, but until this story, they were administered by someone else; for instance, in The Beggar Maid, by the narrator’s stepmother. But here, she says, this is the unvarnished truth, it was my father who beat me, he thought it for the best, and I don’t hold it against him. These personal stories end in her childhood. What are we to make of this? The coded message would appear that if the reader can find this Alice in stories of childhood, it is reasonable to assume that it is the same grown up Alice who informs us in stories about an older and more worldly narrator. Read the stories – that is where you will find me.
Some of the earlier ten stories show unevenness in their structure, although none fail to draw the reader on and surprise. Memory is the key to each of them, the story of what went before, the place where our history takes us. My favourite three stories are “Corrie”, “Train” and the title story “Dear Life”.  “Corrie” is a plain woman deceived by her lover, for most of her life. She pays a monetary price for keeping a secret that in fact never existed, a story invented by the man to extract regular money from her.  If there is a surprise, it is that Corrie, the character, old and ready to abandon sex, still sees it as money well spent.  There may be a price of one kind or another for love, but what would life have been without it at all? “Train” is a sympathetic account of a young man returning from World War 11 and never making it home. He jumps the train before he reaches his destination and drifts through a series of relationships before moving on. The dénouement, in which we discover why he didn’t return, makes perfect sense of what has gone before.
And so to the title and final story “Dear Life”. Alice, for this is the autobiographical writer narrating, is an infant in her pram, outside the house where the family lives, when a woman with a reputation for strangeness approaches. The mother snatches the baby, runs inside and locks the door, while the demented woman knocks and bangs at the windows. Finally she goes away. When she is an old woman herself, the narrator discovers that the woman had once lived in the house and was perhaps looking for a past that she had forgotten at the time. One can never know everything all at once, she is saying. Nor could she, herself, have recognized as a girl, that the mother who had embarrassed and driven her away as her illness progressed, was the same woman who had protected and loved her. She understands now. ‘We say of some things,’ she concludes, ‘that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do –we do it all the time.’
I am grateful for Munro’s own dear, sweet life, the stories she has given us, and the simple stark beauty of her language. This doesn’t have to be the end, but if it is, it is a beautiful conclusion.

Dear Life, by Alice Munro, Chatto & Windus 2012

The Paris newspaper Liberation commissioned twenty foreign writers to write short appraisals of their favourite books for 2012. The contributors included John Burnside, Salman Rushdie, Hideo Furukawa and Thomas Jonigk. The English version of mine is attached.  For your French speaking followers who might like to see this special edition in full, the link is:

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