Monday, 29 June 2009

Unless by Carol Shields

"It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I’ve heard people speak of finding themselves in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit and body, but I’ve never understood what they meant."
Some years ago I was a guest at a dinner given in honour of Carol Shields, who had given a lecture in the department where I was working, in which she talked about the writing of Unless. It was the second time I had met her, and in the interim she had become extremely ill, so that it was clear to everyone that this would very likely be her last visit to the UK. I was a pretty silent guest, as I recall, as usual preferring to listen to the conversation around me. Nevertheless (and that’s the title of Chapter Four of this novel), with a fairly recent course in bereavement counselling behind me, I felt the theme of loss was one with which I had a degree of familiarity, and I was acutely aware that she must recently have faced not just the loss of health, but also the imminent loss of her own life, for which I took the novel to be, at least in part, a metaphor. I was, I admit, fascinated and impressed that she should choose to tackle this loss by anatomising it in a work of fiction.

So it might seem rather surprising that I haven’t read Unless until now, though it has been on my shelf for some time. The initial prompt to read it came from John’s Second Canadian Book Challenge, but the reason I took it to London with me last week was the comments made by one of the guests on BBC Radio 4’s A Good Read, where it was chosen as one of that week’s three books. Children’s novelist Terry Deary (not a writer whose work I know) pronounced it a waste of time (I paraphrase, so I hope he’ll forgive me if I misrepresent him) because reading is to entertain and not to improve the reader. Why on earth, he said, would you want to read about being miserable? Now, I admit that I’d put it off all this time because I knew it would make me sad and perhaps angry, but this enraged me so much that I felt compelled to defend it, because I believe that one of the most important functions of literature is precisely to offer the opportunity to extend the scope of your imagination and thus, experience, to provide the means with which to empathise and relate to others. Just as myths and legends did for our ancestors, so modern literature does for us (and this is a theme which Susan and Nymeth have recently expanded on with much wisdom). Fictionalising experience can allow an exploration of feeling in ways which may not always be open to writers of fact, as well as providing a safer means of doing so. This is particularly true for children (what parent wouldn’t rather have their child introduced to the idea of fear through a “scary” story, than by experiencing it first-hand?), but applies also to adults: should I limit my exploration of the possible loss of a child to watching reality television? can I only understand the plight of women in Afghanistan by risking my own life? Iris Murdoch described the novel as important precisely because it allows a reflective, rather than scientific, examination of the human condition, and this is exactly what Shields is giving us here.

Unless did indeed make me sad and angry, but there was also much to be amused by. Reta Winters is a translator who has recently written a “light” novel, My Thyme is Up, and is now planning a sequel (Thyme in Bloom) in which her characters Alicia and Ramon are planning marriage. Shields has been accused by her critics of being over-concerned with the minutiae of everyday life and relationships, and so too is Reta, so that she spends hours investigating trombone playing on the web, and worrying about whether Alicia should get married. Such displacement activity is described in detail, as is her house-cleaning, recognisable avoidances of what is always near the forefront of her mind: the terrifying absence of her daughter Norah. None of the family can imagine what has driven Norah to drop out of university to sit on a street corner, begging, with a sign around her neck which says “Goodness”. Reta wonders if it may be an accretion of small things, the insidious erasure of women from the world, which
is split in two between those who are handed power at birth, at gestation, encoded with a seemingly random chromosome determinate that says yes for ever and ever, and those like Norah, like Danielle Westerman, like my mother, like my mother-in-law, like me, like all of us who fall into the uncoded female otherness in which the power to assert ourselves and claim our lives has been displaced by a compulsion to shut down our bodies and seal our mouths and be as nothing against the fireworks and streaking stars and blinding light of the Big Bang.
Her husband, Tom, meanwhile, thinks that it may be post-traumatic stress, although none of them is able to point to any event which may have caused it. Erasure is a constant theme: the young Muslim woman who commits an act of self-immolation, Reta’s unsent, angry letters and, in a wonderfully funny scene, her inability to finish a sentence when she meets her new (male) editor.

A book about a woman writing a book, it is insightful about the writing process, as in the chapter which deals with work (or the absence of it) in novels. The denouement is sly, and difficult – I don’t want to say too much about it, but I’m still musing on it. It’s interesting that Shields was writing a novel, when she died, in which one of the characters had just missed the chance to write about 9/11, thus remaining a writer, like Shields herself, concerned with small, personal, everyday tragedies – the difference being that for Shields it was a choice, whereas for her character it was an accident of timing.

This is a book to read when you’re in a contemplative mood, and it is one that will stay with you.


  1. I'm often afraid to read a book, as it might affect me strongly, be sad or upsetting. But I read books like these, and feel I have learnt so much.

    Just as you said, I also think we are fascinated by stories (and find them so entertaining) exactly because they allow us to experience something that we haven't directly lived. Its like a word virus , that infects you and changes the structure of your brain as though you had experienced the events yourself.

    I think its a fundamental part of being human, the best way to transmit complex knowledge. And "entertaining" can mean so many things -
    Ive read Carol Shield's "the box garden" and "small ceremonies" and enjoyed both of them - but I've got readers amnesia so cannot remember much.

  2. Masha, exactly! but sometimes you have to wait until you feel ready to deal with a demanding or difficult book.

  3. "I believe that one of the most important functions of literature is precisely to offer the opportunity to extend the scope of your imagination and thus, experience, to provide the means with which to empathise and relate to others."

    Absolutely yes. And like Masha said, "entertainment" can mean so many things. I love Michael Chabon's definition, which makes it about a complex and two-way communicative process. Anyway, this book sounds wonderful if difficult, and I love the passage you shared.

  4. Carol Shields is my favorite author. I have yet to read Unless because I can not stand the thought of living in a world where there are no more Carol Shield books to read.