I recently bought Alice Munro's latest collection of short stories, Dear Life, in my favourite second hand bookshop in Wirksworth. I’ve long been an admirer of Alice Munro – those characters so sparingly, but brilliantly created, the seemingly inconsequential moments that add up to something far more significant and life-changing, the land and townscapes that evoke such powerful atmospheres. We have a sense that she knows her characters and their setting inside out, and she chooses to give us but a few moments, a few scenes, until a whole world is revealed to us at precisely the right time. In this way her stories are as broad and deep as the best novels – in miniature.
Amundsen is the second story in this collection, and the most brilliant of Alice Munro’s I’ve yet read. It’s set in a bleak settlement near Toronto, in a sanatorium for children with tuberculosis. A young woman arrives there by train and electric car. She notices how beautiful the birches are in the winter sun. She’s going to be the teacher, though there are no guidelines as to what she should teach, and her pupils are frequently absent through acute illness or death. She arrives to scant welcome except from a needy and rather desperate child. She meets the doctor, who is a strange, rather distant character. What unfolds is a love story, in the most unconventional sense. Alice Munro not only enables us to feel the emotions and inhabit the mind of her main character, but also to see with absolute objective clarity, the awfulness of the situation she finds herself in. Yet so much is withheld.
I read it over two nights because I couldn’t bear to finish it in one. Two days later, I’m left with a sense of being haunted –I’m still thinking about the narrative and its shocking conclusion, and the characters still resound in my imagination, as if they’re real. And I think this will go. It’s a story I’ll return to and remember. For me there’s something so uplifting about reading really great literature – encountering in the deepest sense the mystery of life and creativity.
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Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.