In 2013 my mom’s former London flatmate came to visit her in Ballito. She brought my sister and I each a book. I can’t remember what I got, but somehow my sister’s copy of Alice Munro’s Dear Life ended up in my possession.
Munro is a Canadian short story writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. She has written a fantastic number of stories and won several awards for them. She has even been featured in Canadian currency since 2014. Yet, the collection Dear Life has sat on my shelf since 2013, unread, mostly because I have a horrific book buying addiction and also because we were read one of her stories in one of my Creative Writing classes, supposed to be wowed by it, and I was like … wait, nothing happened in that story.
Aah, says the internet, that is the point. Her stories are more like the Russian style, where the plot is secondary and the minor shifts in the character(s) are what we’re supposed to be paying attention to. A lot like real life.
So the other day in my quest to be more literary and read more short stories I picked it up again, and randomly selected a story – Train. Some of my favourite memories of travelling are on trains – leaving Venice singing Kings of Leon Sex on Fire at the top of my lungs thinking there was no one else in my carriage only to receive a round of applause from down the carriage when I was done, taking the train from Vermont to New York listening to the incredible S-Town on my first solo trip to America, watching the fields pass by on the trains I took between Paris and Marnay-Sur-Seine last year, and also that time I looked over at my husband before he was my husband on a train in Turkey thinking ‘shit, I’m so in love with that guy. I’m going to have to ask him to marry me.’
Trains are infinitely better than other modes of transport because they give you a clear view of the outside world at eye-level. You’re not underground in the dark like the subway or the tube, you don’t have to concentrate on driving, you’re not too high up to see people walking in fields, preening their gardens, or waiting, hand in hand, on a platform. Trains allow you to watch people and a long train ride allows you to watch yourself.
So I picked up Dear Life and turned to page 175.
First line: This is a slow train anyway, and it has slowed some more for the curve.
The first line of this story could encapsulate the whole story. It tells us of a man, Jackson, who should be staying on his train to head into a station where we assume someone is waiting for him. Instead, Jackson decides to jump off, and after that, his life is changed forever.
He lands safely and makes his way across a field until he’s spotted by Belle, a local landowner. Belle and Jackson strike up a friendship, beginning with him doing some work on her house, and eventually staying there long term. Like before, not much happened in the plot, which covered several years, but a lot changes in Jackson.
Late in the story, when he is no longer living with Belle, he hears the voice of someone he used to love and he doesn’t get up to see her. Instead, he listens to what she’s asking, studying the voice and its impact on him. It’s enough for him to hear it. He doesn’t want to go back into that old life or have to explain the choices he made or the person he is. He just hears it, and in his hearing, the reader realises how much about him has changed.
The subtle story has some perfect lines, for example:
Jumping off the train was supposed to be a cancellation. You roused your body, readied your knees, to enter a different block of air. You looked forward to emptiness. And instead, what did you get? An immediate flock of new surroundings, asking for your attention in a way they never did when you were sitting on the train and just looking out the window. What are you doing here? Where are you going? A sense of being watched by the things you didn’t know about. Of being a disturbance. Life around coming to some conclusions about you from vantage points you couldn’t see.
This section encapsulates the beauty of being in a train. Of having the ability to move through a scene which seems silent and perfect, and not ever knowing what the reality of that is like. It allows you to pour yourself into the scenery, fill it with your own emotional noise and feeling, and to still your mind a little.
This short story was like that too.