This book was presented to me courtesy of Random House India.
I have noticed that people who read a lot have a tendency of reading the darkest and most depressing literature in their early twenties. Eventually, everyone settles down to a better blend of serious and not-so-serious literature. You may think I am exaggerating, but take a moment and think back. You will invariably have read the heaviest tomes when you were young and carefree. I myself read stuff like ‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry and was thoroughly devastated for weeks after that. Most of these human-interest stories are extremely stark and raw and usually present life in its threadbare reality, which most people, myself included, may deal with competently enough in real life but would not wish to be reminded of during their leisure hours. For the past few years I have settled into reading historical fiction, murder mysteries, thrillers, world war fiction and fantasy. I can’t remember the last time I read contemporary works on my own steam.
Every time I read the list of the Booker Prize winners I tell myself I will definitely read the entire list, but when I go to buy them, I usually shrink away from reading about matters that I know will shake me to the core and make me wonder about them for ages. I sometimes wonder if this is because of many the sad and tragic things that one is bombarded by day-in and day-out through the media, which brings tragedy straight into our drawing rooms and makes it extremely difficult to remain in one’s bubble of happiness and ignore the darker underbelly of life; things like that young girl in Delhi who died such a brutal death, or the farmers in Maharashtra who are committing suicides on a daily basis, or the death of a little girl in Delhi whose parents have been framed for her murder, and above all the gross apathy of the powers that are supposed to set it all right. With so much that one knows is really happening and is not just someone’s imagination, I feel reading should be completely fantastical and an escape.
So when I received Alice Munro’s ‘Dear life’ in the mail, courtesy of Random House India, I was a bit apprehensive. When I began reading, I realized that her stories though thought-provoking were not all that depressive. They deal with life in an almost matter-of-fact way. There is no excessive sentimentality like most American novels, no deep psycho-analysis of the characters and a narrative that believes in leaving its readers to make their own judgments. That is a genuinely great accomplishment, to refrain from pushing forth your own views in black and white when you have the power to do so. She merely narrates a series of events in a most simple and beautiful prose. Most of her stories are set in small towns in post-war era Canada and you can feel the essential stillness of the people living in the mountains. There is definite tinge of nostalgia throughout the stories and as shallow as I may be, nostalgia is something I understand to a tee.
So here’s what I thought about her stories
To reach Japan – I love quirky titles. This is Greta’s story, a wife and mother on a journey to Toronto to house-sit for her friend. She is a poet and seems to be suffering from a sort of apathy and a mid-life crisis. And so she spends her days before the journey fantasizing about a man she met at a party, and eventually takes a life-changing decision. I didn’t really like it, as it seemed not to have lived up to its great title. She isn’t really sure that she wants to reach Japan after all.
Amundsen – This is one story I liked. Its about Vivien, a young girl who sets out to teach the children interned in a tuberculosis sanatorium near Amundsen, and her relationship with the doctor who is in-charge there. It is a sad story about the idealism and the naivety of youth. I also liked the happy little girl that Vivien befriends in the san, called Mary. Mary isn’t sick and she is such a normal child even as she lives in a place where death is accepted as an everyday event. I thought the doctor was just an incredibly selfish man and when all is said and done, he did use the young teacher for his own pleasure. The tragedy of it is that even years later Vivien feels something strong for this man.
Leaving Maverley – This one is about Ray as much as it is about Leah. Ray is a night policeman, who takes care of his ailing wife and actually loves her deeply, and walks the teenage girl Leah home from her work at the cinema hall. One begins to expect sordid things to develop from the nightly walks but they remain happily innocent and almost cosy. And then Leah runs away from home, comes back after a few years a married woman, has kids, cheats on her husband, gets thrown out of her in-laws home, loses custody of her children and starts working at the hospital. During this time, Ray’s wife falls into the comma in which she stays for four long years before passing away without ever waking up. I wondered about the man’s devotion to his wife. It was an extremely touching story about life, about the way people do what they have to do and in a way about fate and destiny. Yes, I loved this story, with its bittersweet undertone.
Gravel – I didn’t really understand how the title was relevant to the story. Unless it refers to the memory of the gravel pit and then wouldn’t it have been better to have added the ‘pit’ after the ‘gravel, to make matters clearer? Or maybe it refers to the burn that a scrape on gravel will leave on you? This story was about guilt that a sibling feels about letting down his brother/sister. I understand that feeling. Some memories stay crystal clear in your mind, helped along with the burden of guilt, no matter how many years go by. So, the little boy, who idealized his older sister, feels an enormous burden of guilt years after an incident which was not his fault at all. It is just one of those things which, I feel, one can never really grow out of.
Haven – This story is told through the eyes of a young girl in the seventies. She is living with her aunt and uncle while her parents are doing good works in Africa. Her Uncle is one of those men whose home is his castle; with a wife who does as she is told and a husband who takes all the decisions. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, the uncle has an older sister who is a musician and who he disapproves of thoroughly. I understood that part, its his choice and so on and so forth; but what was disturbing was the way he takes over control when she can no longer stand up for herself, as if it was something he was waiting to do his entire life.
Pride – Oneida, a lovely name. This was again a story that I liked. Its about a man, who grows up with a cleft-lip in a small town and somehow feels distant from everyone else and is shy and reserved to boot. Oneida seems to like him and spends a ‘ginormous’ amount of time with him and yet they never tell each other what they actually feel for each other. I think it was because of the cleft-lip; he felt as if she felt sorry for him or something. In some ways I think they did understand each other at a deeper level and to be fair Oneida did drop many broad hints, even if she didn’t spell it out clearly.
Corrie – A sad story about a poor, little rich girl. Sometimes human nature has no black and white explanation. Corrie is a strong, intelligent and rich woman who begins an affair with a married man, only to discover years later that the man she trusted blindly is a fraud. Its how she deals with it, which makes such a profound statement about loneliness and the need for companionship that we feel.
Train – Again, a story about the complication of human nature and the ways in which we make life seem more complex than it really is. Its about how some people are able to severe the deepest bonds and move on because of some deep rooted insecurity or shame. They keep their emotions locked up so deep inside that nobody is able to ever understand them completely. It is an extremely lonely existence, but I think people adapt and forget that they are lonely. And so, I did feel a bit of empathy for the man and somehow understood his running away, even though it must have devastated those he left behind.
In sight of the Lake – I didn’t really understand this story or like it. It describes an old woman’s dream. I think it describes the feeling of confinement she feels in the old age home where she lives presently and is just sad. I am not sure whether her dream was based on real events or was a metaphor of some sort. I rarely understand the metaphors in a story, I like to believe they are a simple telling of tales.
The rest of the stories, I will update as I read them. The ones I have read as yet were cumulatively too sad for me and I needed a break.