Reviewed by Susanta Kumar Bardhan, Associate Professor of English, Suri Vidyasagar College, West Bengal
So when I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure. This is the hard part of the explanation, where I have to use a word like ‘feeling,’ which is not very precise, because if I attempt to be more intellectually respectable I will have to be dishonest. (Munro, 1982: 224)
Canadian English short-story writer Alice Munro, (born in the small rural town Wingham Ontario, on 10 July 1931), has been awarded Nobel Prize in Literature (2013) and Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy lauded her as the “master of the contemporary short story” for her sincere effort in composing psychologically and aesthetically rich short stories from the 1950s. Since her childhood days, she has faced a conflicting socio-cultural milieu in and around her birthplace Ontario and has shown her primary concern with lives and inner struggles of the common women folk. This concern, coupled with her innovative ideas and a unique narrative power, has goaded her to depict these conflict-ridden human lives in short stories endowed with the deeper insights, artistic appeal and life-centric philosophy.
Her major short story collections include Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974), Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), The Moons of Jupiter (1982), The Progress of Love (1986), Friend of My Youth (1990), Open Secrets (1994), The Love of a Good Woman (1998), Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001), Runaway (2004), The View from Castle Rock (2006), Too Much Happiness (2009), Dear Life (2012), etc. Most of the short fictions of Munro have been acclaimed by the readers as well as scholars across the globe because of the real-life-experience-based themes and dynamism in narrative technique. Dear Life (2012), is Munro’s latest collection of short stories on which Dr Mala Sharm in her book The Twilight Shades: A Study of Dear Life by Alice Munro published in 2020 has embarked on an in-depth study in order to explore the writer’s disclosures of several aspects of the hidden truths of human existence.
Dear Life is evidently an outcome of Munro’s ability to navigate her memory and transform that into an authentic expression in the form of short stories. At the beginning of “Dear Life” she attempts to delve out her memories and expresses:
I lived when I was young at the end of a long road, or a road that seemed long to me. Behind me, as I walked home from primary school, and then from high school, was the real town with its activity and its sidewalks and its streetlights for after dark. Marking the end of town were two bridges over the Maitland River: one narrow iron bridge, where cars sometimes got into trouble over which one should pull off and wait for the other, and a wooden walkway, which occasionally had a plank missing, so that you could look right down into the bright, hurrying water. I liked that, but somebody always came and replaced the plank eventually. (Dear Life 2012: 299)
Mala Sharma’s book under the present review is an honest attempt to minutely unravel the workings of the heart in the midst of encountering life-experiences shaping the writer’s self. In this context, it is worthy to excerpt the words of Dr Sharma where she unhesitatingly states regarding the collection Dear Life and her own book:
Having been illumined by long pathways of life, Munro in this collection (Dear Life) has unwound the treasures of her experiences as a woman, and has shared her emotions and sensibilities with her innumerable readers and critics. As Munro has now stepped into the ‘twilight shades’ of her life and is now re-winding the gone by days which had shaped her into the artist-woman that she is now, the work has been named The Twilight Shades: A Study of Dear Life by Alice Munro. (p. vi)
The book comprises five chapters and a detailed Bibliography. Chapter 1: Introduction presents the basic information-cum-analysis of the life, struggle and literary career of the 13th Woman Nobel Laureate Munro who is truly endowed with a broad human self and psyche ready to transform crises and experiences into an artistic unity. This chapter also makes a special focus on reactions made by Munro at different times on her works and sward winning. In Chapter 2: The Contours of Life, Dr. Sharma deals with the artist’s projection of the various shades of human life and existence in the collection. It has been shown here that the introspection-born stories of this collection reflect the ‘intricacies of human relationship and the challenges that women face in their quest for self’ (p. vi). This chapter also addresses the issues and events as depicted in the cluster of four-stories named ‘Finale’ which are considered to be Munro’s truly autobiographical sketches touched with emotional shades affected and effected by a past life. Munro herself In an Atlantic interview with Cara Feinberg (2001) states how she introspectively as well as philosophically dallies with time in order to make life bearable:
In my own work, I tend to cover a lot of time and to jump back and forward in time, and sometimes the way I do this is not very straightforward. . . . . [I] t’s a way of saying whatever it is that I want to say, and it sort of has to be done this way. Time is something that interests me a whole lot—past and present, and how the past appears as people change. . . . Maybe I should say that memory interests me a great deal, because I think we all tell stories of our lives to ourselves, as well as to other people. . . . What interests me is how these stories are made—what is put in at different times in your life, what is left out at different times, and how you use the stories to see yourself, or sometimes just to make life bearable for yourself.
Chapter 3: The Paradigms of Narrative explores the salient features of Muro’s narrative art which is markedly different from the traditional form of storytelling. Munro, as Dr Sharma points out, journeys from the surface real-life encounters to the deeper emotional and psychological realms with the help of her own narrative art leading to postmodern praxis. In Chapter 4: Women’s Voice, an attempt has been made to represent the contemporary male-dominated Canadian society affecting the rights and challenges of women and their protest against the patriarchal patterns as traced in Munro’s stories included in Dear Life. Dr Sharma has tried to show Munro’s feminist stance in the light of the present societal context and her message to the world as depicted in her stories. The concluding chapter Treading in Twilight sums up the discussion made in the previous chapters leading to ‘an open-ended conclusion to this timeless piece of literary creation’ (p. vii).
The way Dr Sharma has analysed the stories included in the collection demands the special appreciation on the part of general readers and scholars. It is a pleasure-reading narration of the extraordinary creative narration of a powerful and intuitive artist who has successfully blended the personal and impersonal elements in her works. All the chapters and paragraphs within these have been presented with the help of coherent undercurrent of thoughts and appropriate, cohesive devices. The book is rich with the incisive analyses made with the help of Dr Sharma’s own insightful observations and her honest quotations from the works of previous critical publications on literary theory and Munro’s works. The detailed bibliography along with the references given at the end of each chapter, has added a dimension to the critical study of the present book in the area. This is indicative of the integrity of Dr Sharma as a devout reader of Munro and as a scholar dedicated to Munro studies.
To conclude, in spite of the inadvertent typos and grammatical slips (which are very negligible in number), the present book can be considered to be an authentic contribution to Munro studies in particular and literary criticism in general.
Munro, Alice. 2001. “Bringing Life to Life: A Conversation with Alice Munro.” With Cara Feinberg. The Atlantic, December 1.
Munro, Alice. 2012. Dear Life: Stories. New York: Knopf.
Sharma, Mala. 2013. The Inner Voice: A Study of the Fiction of Alice Munro. New Delhi: Atlantic Publications.