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Munro at 81: Keenest of observers

Alice Munro is not going gentle into that good night. Dear Life strikes me as Munro's best collection yet, and I have read and loved them all. If this turns out to be the octogenarian's last book, it will show that age served only to sharpen her powers of observation.

Dear Life

nolead begins By Alice Munro

Knopf. 336 pp. $26.95

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Reviewed by Susan Balée

Alice Munro is not going gentle into that good night.

Dear Life strikes me as Munro's best collection yet, and I have read and loved them all. If this turns out to be the octogenarian's last book, it will show that age served only to sharpen her powers of observation.

Imagine Munro's creative mind at work: a bright blue eye taking in the landscape of human foibles, a scouring gaze that nevertheless thrums with compassion. The characters she illuminates are often stubborn, determined women (so many seem like her younger selves), likable to readers and clearly loved by their author, even when she must make them writhe. Life is love and loss and suffering.

In Dear Life, though, Munro has her mind focused on love (there's one story here that deals explicitly with death, but it's her last, very gothic collection, Too Much Happiness, that revels in the dark side) - love that blooms in unexpected places and sometimes takes strange forms.

This collection will have critics calling her Chekhov, or Nabokov (I'm thinking of butterflies in a last tragic flutter as his pin goes through their heads), or, in the story titled "Amundsen," Tolstoy. Certainly her ear for dialogue remains unparalleled. Here a teacher meets her employer, the doctor at a tuberculosis sanitorium in northern Canada.

He wanted to know how I would like living up here in the woods, after Toronto, whether I would be bored.

Not in the least, I said, and added that it was beautiful. "It's like - it's like being inside a Russian novel."

He looked at me attentively for the first time. "Is it really? Which Russian novel?"

His eyes were a light, bright grayish blue. One eyebrow had risen, like a little peaked cap.

It was not that I hadn't read Russian novels. I had read some all through and some partway. But because of that eyebrow, and his amused but confrontational expression, I could not remember any title except "War and Peace." I did not want to say that because it was what anybody would remember.

" 'War and Peace.' "

This story, like all of Munro's stories, starts out straightforwardly, and right when you think you know where it's going to wind up, the narrative thread detours down into the minotaur's lair. One great pleasure in reading Munro is seeing just where her mind will take her characters.

Another great pleasure comes from watching her construct those characters. They're prickly, and yet readers can't help embracing them. They're Canadians mostly, of Scots descent, like Munro herself. They're proud and class-bound. Most of them don't want to belong to any club that would have them as a member. And yet.

"Pride" begins with this meditation:

Some people get everything wrong. How can I explain? I mean, there are those who can have everything against them - three strikes, twenty strikes, for that matter - and they turn out fine. Make mistakes early on - dirty their pants in grade two, for instance - and then live out their lives in a town like ours where nothing is forgotten (any town, that is, any town is a place like that) and they manage, they prove themselves hearty and jovial, claiming and meaning that they would not for the world want to live in any place but this.

With other people, it's different. They don't get away but you wish they had. For their own sake, you could say. Whatever hole they started digging for themselves when they were young - not by any means as obvious as the dirty pants either - they keep right on at it, digging away, even exaggerating if there is a chance that it might not be noticed.

These characters can't help becoming themselves; it's clear Munro knows she can't stop them. They're going where they want to go and their author provides fine prose to glide them on their way.

And she's going somewhere too. Born in 1931, Munro is doubtless musing on her own demise and the vagaries of an aging mind. This collection is proof she has nothing to worry about in the acuity department, but some of her characters do. "In Sight of the Lake" follows the travails of Nancy, who has begun to get mixed up about what day it is: "It isn't mind. It's just memory." Oh, memory! That story left me shivering, for I did not foresee where Munro would take it and I wonder if she did.

This collection does have an odd addendum. The last four pieces follow a page called "Finale," in which Munro tells us these last works "form a separate unit, one that is 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."

That's an author shaping the way her oeuvre will be perceived, yet fans who have read all her work will know these pieces are not the first things she's written about her life. The collection titled The View From Castle Rock dealt with Munro's childhood on a farm where her father raised foxes and minks. She's also told stories of her mother's unlikable airs and unfortunate struggle with Parkinson's. When the time comes to compare Munro's life to her work, scholars won't lack (auto)biographical source material - but the work will transcend any originating events from her life.

As one of her characters says, "Who can ever say the perfect thing to the poet about his poetry? And not too much or not too little, just enough?" I wish I could say the perfect thing, both to praise her and to encourage readers who haven't sampled her work to try this book. Alice Munro, a contender, deserves to win the Nobel Prize for literature.