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Mary Swann Hardcover – 16 Aug 1990

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate; Reprint edition (16 Aug. 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1872180027
  • ISBN-13: 978-1872180021
  • Product Dimensions: 21.4 x 13.6 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 532,764 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


‘Quite excellent. Hers is a name to set beside those of Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro.’ Anita Brookner, Spectator

‘A funny, compassionate, open-handed novel. A worthy British debut from a fine Canadian author.’ Glasgow Herald

‘Formally ingenious and inventive, strikingly evocative of place, of character, of the world of things, capable of both comedy and tenderness, and above all beautifully written.’ LRB

‘Clearly a work of an experienced and skilful writer. This is not only a first-rate read, it is also sophisticated and ingeniously crafted.’ Listener

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Back Cover

Mary Swann, a latter day Emily Dickinson, submitted a paper bag of poems to newspaper editor Frederic Cruzzi mere hours before her husband hacked her to pieces. How could someone who led such a dull, sheltered life produce these works of genius? Four very different people search for the elusive answer.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

47 of 50 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 14 Nov. 2000
Format: Paperback
Mary Swann was a Canadian housewife with a brutal husband. She led a hard dull and monotonous life isolated from other people. Her only item of luxury was a Parker 51 fountain pen and her only treat was to borrow two books every fortnight from the limited local library. Edna Ferber was one of her favourites. Yet, she wrote poetry. Small beautifully crafted rhyming verses on shabby scraps of paper that she presented to a newspaper editor in a carrier bag.
Prepared to patronise, they were to his astonishment worthy of publishing. it was not to be Mary's destiny to see the printed book - her husband murdered her shortly after the visit to the editor's office, a visit marred by her anxiety about missing the bus home.
I am not giving away all the plot here! The book centres round four main characters who are obsessed with her: Frederic Cruzzi the newspaper editor, the lonely librarian Rose Hindmarch who 'knew her best', the obsessive and bitter Morton Jimroy and Sarah Maloney, a feminist writer. Had Mary Swann lived she would not have recognised herself as the person they prepare to present at the Mary Swann symposium that is the culmination of the book. She may not have even recognised some of her poems after Cruzzi's beloved wife mistakenly discards fish bones in the bag of her work causing the ink to run.
Mary Swann remains a shadowy figure and I must confess I would have liked an extra chapter that revealed more bout her life and death and the minor mysteries that were hinted at. For instance, to whom were the love poems written?
However, perhaps like a good meal it is best to leave the table wanting just a little more.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Oliver Redfern on 13 July 2008
Format: Paperback
Mary Swann, a farmer's wife in rural Ontario, is murdered and dismembered by her possessive husband just before her first book of poetry is published. Years later, four different people - a feminist writer, an unscrupulous biographer, the local librarian who knew her and the man who published her poems - relive their connection to Swann as they travel to the first symposeum dedicated to her work.

This novel intelligently asks whether an uneducated person can create moving poetry, and how well we can know a literary figure, especially in this day and age when people are more concerened with building their careers on top of someone's work rather than finding the truth. Shields only misses a beat in the end, with a section written as a screenplay pastiche which underwhelms.

As a follow up, you might want to read Margaret Atwood's "Negotiating with the Dead", which is about the role of the author in the world, and which includes commentary on "Mary Swann" (Carold Shields was a good friend of Atwood's.)
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Kathleen Turner Overdrive on 9 Nov. 2006
Format: Paperback
What was that? That was the rug - and it was taken from right under your feet, by the brilliant Carol shields. And it is uncomfortable, and uncompromising, and utterly, utterly compelling. As a Pulitzer winning author,who presumably knows better than you or I, what it feels like to be "written" and "re-written" and to have our intentions reshaped, retold - "no, I did not mean that at all, I did not say that, that was not what I meant..." Well, you get the gist. In a world of celebrity when what is said is bent, or not meant, when semantics becomes the murky world not of black or white, or even grey, but a darker world of black arts, when meaning strays from language, when the life becomes the work, the question remains for Shileds, for all of us : Who are we?

If you have lost anyone you have loved, you will understand this - that when someone has gone, they become open to any interpretation we put on them. They become public property. Why? Because they cannot speak for themselves. And so they become a myriad of contradictions. How different people remember them.

Shields does not merely open the can of worms of literary biography, but states the uncomfortable truth that all of us, in life (but especially in death,) are unknowable. She slowly erodes the "facts" relating to the fictional but poignant Mary Swann, be they retold in diaries, or photographs, or conversations, or poems, or memories. The things that root all of us in the here and now become open to doubt. The things we hope that count slowly disappear in the course of "Mary Swann", and Shields successfully illuminates the greater truth: that in our lifetimes, no one will ever get close to revealing who we are. The human spirit is unknowable.
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