Archives for posts with tag: Alice Munro

The fact of dementia is inescapable, as its incidence threatens to reach epidemic proportions in the not too distant future.

Thus, unsurprisingly, dementia as a theme is increasingly prevalent in the arts, including literature, theatre and the visual arts. I discussed the artist William Utermohlen in a previous post, and the impact of dementia on his life and creativity ( I have also experienced wonderful theatre that has focused on the subject, such as Tamsin Oglesby’s Really Old, Like Forty Five (, and Melanie Wilson’s Autobiographer (

A few years ago I came across a short story by Alice Munro, The Bear Came Over the Mountain, which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1999 ( The story was later adapted for the film Away from Her (2006), which was directed by Sarah Polley.

The short story concerns Grant and Fiona, who have been married for many years, and do not have any children. When Fiona was 70, Grant started to notice little yellow notes stuck all over the house. The notes were detailed and included prompts on where to locate household items as well as aids for remembering what her daily schedule should be. Fiona then started to call Grant from town when she could not remember how to get home. Fiona herself comments:

“I don’t think it’s anything to worry about,” she said. “I expect I’m just losing my mind.”

The forgetfulness and memory loss get worse. Eventually, the time arrives for Fiona to move to institutional care at Meadowlake, where she creates her own and not unhappy life, separate and detached from Grant. The story is a profoundly moving and sad portrayal of love and of loss.

Today I read a more recent short story by Munro from her collection Dear Life. In In Sight of the Lake (reminiscent of Meadowlake in the earlier story), Nancy’s story slowly unfollows as one also of dementia, or of a ‘mind problem’ as she herself sees it, although then correcting herself: “It isn’t mind. It’s just memory.”

In Sight of the Lake is a more obtuse and enigmatic piece than The Bear Came Over the Mountain, and it only really reveals itself at its denouement. Nonetheless, it is every bit as moving and as touching as its thematic predecessor, and leaves much to consider about the far-reaching and tragic impact of dementia, a condition that perhaps few of us may ultimately escape.


I was intrigued by this alternative view on Alice Munro in the London Review of Books recently (

The author of the piece, Christian Lorentzen, claims to be confused by the consensus that surrounds the acclaimed short story writer Alice Munro, and how critics assert ‘her goodness, her greatness, her majorness or her bestness’ on the one hand, while at the same time encouraging us to see as virtues in her writing that which might otherwise be viewed as shortcomings:

‘So she writes only short stories, but the stories are richer than most novels.’

‘She has preternatural powers of sympathy and empathy, but she’s never sentimental.’

‘She writes about and redeems ordinary life, ordinary people…’

Lorentzen has not enjoyed reading Munro’s work:

‘Reading ten of her collections in a row has induced in me not a glow of admiration but a state of mental torpor that spread into the rest of my life.’

‘I became sad, like her characters, and like them I got sadder.’

‘I saw everyone heading towards cancer, or a case of dementia…’

I have always been drawn to stories that feel realistic and believable. True, these narratives are often ‘pathos-delivering’, as Lorentzen describes Munro’s latest collection Dear Life. But, the tales that I can relate to and connect with do not make me feel sad, or sadder, or despondent. Rather, they reassure me that out there somewhere is a story and an experience that I can connect with, on some level. Such connection makes the world a less solitary place.

There is a bigger question here too, which is why do we read. Each of us brings our own agendas and individual needs to the page, be it escapism, a need to connect, or whatever. It is good that we are all such different readers and writers.

Ultimately, my experience reading Munro’s stories has been vastly different to that of Lorentzens. Take for example the story ‘Gravel’ from Dear Life, about which Lorentzen says little, apart from the three words ‘a child drowns’, which seem heavily weighted with his negativity towards Munro’s ‘pathos-delivering tales’.

I, on the other hand, remember something quite different from the same story:

‘”The thing is to be happy,” he said. “No matter what. Just try that. You can. It gets to be easier and easier. It’s nothing to do with circumstances. You wouldn’t believe how good it is. Accept everything and tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you’re just there, going along easy in the world.”’