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Alice Munro: Dear Life (Chatto & Windus)

Karl Miller, the Gilmerton-born founding editor of the London Review Of Books, would like to claim Alice Munro as Scottish.

Who can blame him? On her father's side, Munro's forebears were borderers, Laidlaws, a clan of murderous reivers. Her great-great-great-grandfather, James Laidlaw, was a first cousin of the Ettrick Shepherd, James Hogg, with whose work Munro's has some obvious affinities, not the least of which is an aversion to sentimentality and the justified confessions of assorted sinners.

In the second decade of the 19th century, James Laidlaw went west, taking with him his wife and young son and the genes of a storyteller. Eventually, the Laidlaws settled in Canada, rooting themselves in a corner of Ontario as they once did in the debatable land of the Ettrick Valley. One day it may become known as Munro County, in homage to its most famous inhabitant, a place as flat and empty as the Low Countries, which takes three tedious hours to reach by road from Toronto, with its city swank, gleaming towers and cosmopolitan, corporate blandness.

In her time, Munro, who was born in 1931, has oscillated between city and country, though she has always felt more at home in the latter. That, certainly, is the sense one gets from reading her short stories, where the city is a place that induces unease in the occasional visitor and outsider, that special, intangible, unwelcome sense of not fitting in, of feeling that you're soon to be unmasked as a fraud. Needless to say, it is a quite perfect setting for a story in which such tension as it conveys is self-generated.

It is there, for instance, in To Reach Japan, the opening story in Dear Life. Greta is the mother of Katya and the wife of Peter, an engineer. She is also a poet and when Peter goes to the far north of Canada to work for a month, she and her daughter travel to Toronto by train. En route, Greta recalls how in Vancouver she was once invited to a literary party by the editor of a magazine. Not knowing anyone and being studiously ignored, she drank too much and began to muse on the difference between parties with engineers and literary types.

At the former, she thought, the atmosphere was pleasant but boring. "That was because everybody had their importance fixed and settled at least for the time being. Here nobody was safe. Judgment might be passed behind backs, even on the known and the published. An air of cleverness or nerves obtained, no matter who you were."

Greta is a woman in thrall to obsession, infatuation and impulse. But while she offers the story its dynamic, it is Katya who delivers its pathos, viewing the behaviour of adults through a child's all-seeing, half-comprehending eyes, simultaneously trusting and mistrusting what her errant mother tells her.

The relationship between children and their parents has long been a feature of Munro's work. Another is the disconnection between a couple from different backgrounds, as her mother was from her father and as she was from her first husband, whose family were well-off in comparison to hers. In such circumstances, appearances matter hugely. In an essay titled Working For A Living, Munro recalled how as her mother grew older she increasingly had unrealistic pretensions to a genteel, middle-class existence, which included funding a school bursary on the basis of the family's fox-fur business which rarely broke even. Such pride, such profligacy in the face of real poverty, Munro reckoned, bordered on perversity.

Many of her stories feature women like her mother, struggling to cope with day-to-day life while dreaming of better things. In Voices, a daughter says of her mother, "I think people found her pushy and over grammatical." Together they go to a dance at which mother spies a woman whom she knows is a prostitute. Suddenly, she wants to leave, unable to be in the same room as such a person. "You could have called her brazen, and perhaps my mother later did – that was her sort of word." Thus the pleasure of the dance and its anticipation disappear in a flash.

In Corrie, the eponymous protagonist is a single, wealthy woman who is lame in one leg because she suffered from polio when young. For years she maintains an affair with a married man, having previously lost her virginity to a piano teacher when she was 15. "She had gone along with what the piano teacher wanted because she felt sorry for people who wanted things so badly."

When her lover receives a note, purportedly from Lillian, a girl who did chores around her house, suggesting that if she is not given a cheque twice a year she will spill the beans about Corrie and him to his wife, Corrie is unfazed. "I always thought she was sly," she says. "I guess killing her is not an option." It is not and she pays up without fussing over the lost money, of which, she belatedly comes to realise, Lillian was not the recipient and therefore not a blackmailer.

What unifies the 14 stories in Dear Life is a quietness of tone and the unliterary language. Munro writes as an exceptionally ordinary person might do in a letter to a close friend, never using words you need to look up in a dictionary and never introducing flashy metaphors and similes, and never misplacing a comma. The style is in keeping with the settings, where a doctor's bill can be the undoing of a family, religion weighs heavily on the soul and everyone knows everyone else's business.

A man like Ray, in Leaving Mabberley, is typical, stoical in the face of events outwith his control, pragmatic in regard to what he can expect of life. Adultery, drunkenness and scandal – "who was right and who was wrong?" – don't interest him. "The waste of time, the waste of life, by people all scrambling for excitement and paying no attention to anything that mattered." What matters to Ray is doing what's expected of him, turning up for work as a projectionist in the town's cinema, visiting his wife in hospital until she fades away. "What he carried with him, all he carried with him, was a lack, something like a lack of air, of proper behaviour in his lungs, a difficulty that he supposed would go on for ever."

Like so many of Munro's characters, Ray seems beset by melancholia, perhaps because so many of them are looking back on their lives and asking questions they are still unable to answer. In that regard, the title story, Dear Life, is emblematic. Told by a woman born in the same year as Munro it is superficially autobiographical. But then what story isn't?

From the town library – an institution of paramount importance to Munro – she borrows Remembrance Of Things Past and The Magic Mountain, cooks for her father after her mother develops Parkinson's and buckles down to her homework. Once, she relates, her mother told of how a crazy woman in the neighbourhood tried to steal her and how her mother had grabbed her out of the pram and held on to her for "dear life", an everyday phrase freighted, as is so often the case with Alice Munro, with a multiplicity of meanings.

Dear Life

Alice Munro

Chatto & Windus, £18.99

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Families

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