In acknowledging Alice Munro's pre-eminence in the world of contemporary short fiction it's become fashionable to describe her as the "Canadian Chekhov," but that title barely hints at the scope of her literary influence. "Dear Life," her 13th collection, only serves to burnish her reputation for creating intelligent, sophisticated stories out of inarguably humble materials.
Most of this volume's stories emerge from the soil of small towns in southwestern Ontario, Munro's native territory. Some characters try to shed their rural roots, but the land seems to exert a powerful hold over them. Only "To Reach Japan" departs much from this environment, as a Vancouver housewife travels with her young daughter for a rendezvous with a lover in Toronto that nearly ends in tragedy.
As in much of Munro's work, a strong current of darkness courses under the placid surface of these stories, several of them set during World War II or its immediate aftermath. More than one involves infidelity, and there's a drowning, a fatal car accident, an elderly husband and wife who contemplate a joint suicide, and even blackmail.
Munro displays her customary economy of language in portraying these events, but she reserves her keenest prose for painting her characters in brisk, distinctive strokes. The protagonist in "Leaving Maverley" describes another character as an "expert at losing," while the main character in "Train" concludes his companion "was a certain kind of woman, he a certain kind of man."
The four pieces that make up the collection's "Finale" are "not quite stories," in Munro's own modest appraisal. "They form a separate unit," she writes, "one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact." That's a tantalizing description of vignettes that recount 10-year-old Alice's first encounter with death ("The Eye"), her insomniac walks ("Night"), an adolescent introduction to the world of sexuality ("Voices") and the book's title story, a slice of family history anchored in domesticity whose ending, reflecting on her mother's death, contains a startling moral self-judgment.
As precisely drawn as these sketches may be, Munro coyly contrasts them with the artifice of her fiction. Speaking of one character who's introduced, only to quickly disappear, she cautions, "this is not a story, only life." And in describing the simultaneous failure of her father's mink and fox farming operation and the onset of her mother's Parkinson's disease, she writes, "It wouldn't do in fiction."
Barring the discovery of a cache of unpublished work, now that Munro has entered her ninth decade it's probably unreasonable to expect her to produce another volume of stories. It's with gratitude, then, that we can acknowledge with this one that her considerable gifts remain undiminished.
Harvey Freedenberg is a freelance reviewer and member of the National Book Critics Circle. He writes from Harrisburg, Pa.