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Carol Shields was a vibrant and much-loved author who sadly died in 2003. Although primarily a novelist, she also wrote poetry, plays, criticism and an award-winning biography of Jane Austen. Women’s lives, their inner lives and their friendships were what interested her and all her novels explore the importance of the quotidian. Her final novel UNLESS is no exception.
The narrator is Reta Winters, a forty-three year old woman with three teenage daughters, a loving husband and beautiful home. Then without apparent warning her eldest daughter Norah drops out of university, withdraws from the world and sits on a street corner in Toronto wearing a sign which says ‘Goodness’. She refuses to communicate with any of her family and Reta, who is also a successful author, feels powerless in the face of such mute obstinacy. The novel explores her attempts to understand and come to terms with this cataclysmic event, while at the same time trying to redeem her beloved daughter.
Carol Shields did not aspire to write plot-driven novels – she wished rather to explore the arc of an individual’s life, the urgency of relationships and how individuals intersect with their communities. She explores the lack of influence of women in the world in general and the intellectual world in particular and how women juggle their various roles to balance the demands of the domestic sphere with those of their careers. We meet Reta’s friends and colleagues who all offer varying degrees of support and along the way Shields explores feminism, loneliness and the art of writing fiction.
Ultimately nature intervenes and Norah is hospitalised with a bout of pneumonia, Reta keeps a vigil by her bedside and as Norah recovers they are eventually reconciled. We learn what drove her to reject society in the first place and are confident that with her loving family around her she will make a full recovery, though she will always bear the scars of her experience.
The fact that this was Carol Shield’s last book and her main protagonist was a writer, lent it an elegiac quality and made it a fitting epitaph to her own particular humanity which I’m sure will remain a touchstone for generations of women to come.
We meet again on 17th June to discuss the much hyped thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Withiel Book Circle – reading list
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