Unless

“A life is full of isolated events,” writes Carol Shields near the end of Unless, “but these events, if they are to form a coherent narrative, require odd pieces of language to link them together, little chips of grammar (mostly adverbs or prepositions) that are hard to define… words like therefore, else, other, also, thereof, therefore, instead, otherwise, despite, already, and not yet.” Shield’s explanation for her novel’s title lends meaning to this multilayered narrative in which a mother’s grief over a daughter’s break with the family revises her feminist outlook and pushes her craft as a writer in a new direction.

The oldest daughter of 44-year-old Reta Winters suddenly, inexplicably, drops out of college and ends up on a Toronto street corner panhandling, with a cardboard sign around her neck that reads “goodness.” The quiet comforts of Reta’s small-town life and the constancy of her feminist perspective sustain her hope that her daughter will snap out of this, whatever “this” is. Threaded into her family’s crisis is her ongoing internal elegy on the exclusion of women from the literary canon, which she transposes to mean her daughter’s exclusion from humanity. Reta wonders if her daughter has discovered, as she herself did years before, that the world is “an endless series of obstacles, an alignment of locked doors,” and has chosen to pursue the one thing that doesn’t require power or a voice: goodness.

Carol Shields has also written The Stone Diaries

“She enlarges on the available material, extends, shrinks, reshapes what’s offered; this mixed potion is her life. She swirls it one way or the other, depending on – who knows what it depends on? – the fulcrum of desire, or of necessity. She might drop in a ripe plum from a library book she’s reading or something out of a soap opera or a dream.”

The life in question belongs to Daisy Goodwill Flett, “a middle-class woman, a woman of moderate intelligence and medium-sized ego and average good luck.” In other words, a woman so commonplace that her story would seem barely worth remarking, were it not, perhaps, for her own determination to tell it. And in telling it, give it shape and meaning – even if she must supply these herself.

This is the problem that Carol Shields addresses in The Stone Diaries: how do small lives, the kind most women were once assumed to lead, assume significance and coherence? How closely do our versions of those lives correspond to objective facts? Can facts be said to exist at all in the context of something as changeable and arbitrary as a life? To what extent do “our” stories really belong to us, considering the tendency that other people – parents, spouses, children – have to intrude in them, interpret them, claim them? (URL reference)

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