Knopf: 336 pp., $26.95
Alice Munro's short stories are often said to resemble novels. It's not just the density of life she crams into them — it's also their length. Inching into novella territory, the long title stories of her last three collections, "Runaway" (2004), "The View from Castle Rock" (2006) and "Too Much Happiness" (2009), explored the exurbs of the short story form.
The casually impeccable stories in her latest collection, "Dear Life," are somewhat more traditional in that they are largely focused on a defining episode of a character's life. It's still possible to piece together a broader history — Munro has a genius, no empty word here, for selecting details that keep unfolding in the reader's mind — but the scope has tightened.
The plots, if it's possible to call such natural seeming accounts plots, build to big cinematic scenes: the drowning of a child in a gravel pit, a tyrannical patriarch arriving home to discover his meek wife throwing a lively party, a child wandering off on a train while her mother flirts with a friendly stranger. But the hand of fate can also creep up unexpectedly, as in "Pride," the story of a character disfigured by a harelip who lets the chance of tender companionship slip by out of a combination of obstinacy, ego and fear.
For the most part, the titles are abridged, reduced to just a single noun ("Gravel," "Haven," "Train," "Night"), as though Munro were getting down to brass tacks. At 81, this heralded Canadian author, widely considered the greatest living short story writer in the English language, has quickened her pace.
The austere Lake Huron setting hasn't changed, but the period — the stories often occur around the Second World War or hark back to this more urgent era — doesn't encourage leisurely peregrinations. Even her symbols have grown stark — that fatal gravel pit of "Gravel" looms as a menacing reminder of the hole left after a mother uproots her two daughters from their home to shack up with a pot-smoking actor in a trailer park.
No story is quite as haunting as "Amundsen," the tale of an abortive engagement between a young teacher who takes a job at a tubercular hospital in a wintry rural outpost and the presiding doctor who is all business even when making love. The title refers to the town where the story is set, a backwater with a frozen lake, gray skies and "small untidy evergreens rolled up like sleepy bears."
Munro preserves the mystery of the couple's union and abrupt separation. Blame or fault-finding isn't part of the picture. Human nature follows laws every bit as unyielding as the weather. When the doctor says to his no longer bride-to-: be, "Maybe someday you'll count this one of the luckiest days of your life," it is possible to feel the cold gusts penetrating the car in which this final conversation takes place. The early spring temperature may be biting, but it's far from unnatural in these parts.
The classic Munro figure of a woman, usually with unfulfilled literary yearnings, making a getaway from a stale or stifling marriage appears repeatedly, though the balance sheet of happiness isn't altered for long by new passion. The mother in "Gravel," who shacks up with the freewheeling actor and starts dressing "in shawls and long skirts and dangling necklaces," unromantically becomes the business manager of the theater and a single-parent breadwinner.
How does Munro manage such great effects on a relatively small canvas? It's a question that most anyone who has seriously attempted to write a short story in the last 20 years has pondered. This collection hints at answers, with its banishing of certainties and calm acceptance of the not unusual overlap of love and cruelty — the way, say, a father accustomed to using a razor strap could find just the right comforting words during his young daughter's bout with insomnia.
This volume contains a "finale" of four works that Munro says represent the "first and last — and closest — things" she has to say about her own life. It's a fitting coda for a book that gives the impression of a writer sharing secrets, not in the sense of dirty laundry but in terms of storytelling sensibility.
"Dear Life" has something of a valedictory quality to it, but the consciousness behind these stories has a vitality that, thankfully, seems in no danger of ending any time soon.