Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Unless," by Carol Shields

Readers may remember that one of my most-admired contemporary writers is the late Carol Shields, the Canadian author who, sadly, died in 2003, at the age of 68. I recently listened to her last novel, “Unless” (2002), on CD. I had read the book twice already, but not recently. As I listened, I marveled once again at Shields’ gorgeous prose and wonderfully wise writing. In this novel, she writes about family (especially the mother-daughter relationship), about writing (especially the situation of women writers), and about the nature of “goodness,” among other themes. The narrator and main character Reta Winters’ oldest daughter Norah, a college student, has suddenly had some kind of crisis and started panhandling in downtown Toronto, mostly silently, with a cardboard sign saying “Goodness” around her neck. Most of the novel is about how the family reacts to this sad and mysterious happening, as well as about the narrator’s writing her second novel to distract herself as much as possible. One strong strand throughout the novel is the narrator’s anger at the way women writers over the years have been condescended to, underestimated, and left out of consideration or even notice in reviews, literature programs and classes, and elsewhere. She gives example after example, and writes (but does not send) cutting letters to magazine editors and others about this issue. This focus on the issue of women writers' being marginalized sounds didactic, but Shields is such a good writer that it does not come off that way. “Unless,” like Shields’ other books, especially “The Stone Diaries” and “Larry’s Party,” is exquisitely well written, full of wisdom, thought-provoking, intricately textured, and deeply satisfying. Shields is an incredible writer, and although she has a high reputation (for example, “The Stone Diaries” won the Pulitzer Prize), I fear that she herself is not adequately read and appreciated. I hope I am wrong. Now I want to add a personal note: Some years ago, I recommended Carol Shields’ novels to my friend C., whom I have mentioned here several times. C. read her work and went to hear Shields speak at a bookstore in her East Coast city, and was very impressed (and C. was not easily impressed). We both mourned Shields’ death of cancer in 2003. A few years later, in 2008, C. was diagnosed with cancer herself and, as I wrote about here (on 4/29/11), died in 2011, a terrible loss to her family and many friends and colleagues, and to the world. When earlier this week I heard an interview with Shields at the end of the CD of “Unless,” apparently in a bookstore type setting, the interview reminded me of C., of her description of having heard Carol Shields read and speak, and of how we both appreciated and loved Shields’ impressive and perceptive writing. This memory was symbolic of the many book-and-reading-related bonds C. and I shared for almost 40 years.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Site Meter