offers us engrossing proof--if ever we needed it--that Carol Shields is a writer of incomparable creative agility, wit and tenderness. In her eight novels (including Orange Prize-winner Larry's Party
and two short-story collections she has continued to combine an extraordinary inventiveness with prose of suppleness and grace. Her terrain is the domestic and her thematic ambitions are delivered with a beguiling lightness of touch that never undercuts a depth and seriousness of intent--the perfect velvet glove over the iron fist.
Towards the end of Unless its central character, fortysomething Reta Winters--wife, mother, editor, translator and recent novelist--takes issue with how an eminent critic has belatedly bestowed status on her first novel, My Thyme is Up. What had been judged until then as her "fresh, bright springtime piece of fiction" has become... 'a brilliant tour de force', says Professor Casey, and this quote will, of course, appear on the jacket of the sequel...in the same size type as the name Reta Winters, but I am trying not to think what that means." This is just one of countless delicious asides (yet none of Shields' asides are ever throwaway) which Reta makes in her light, self-mocking tone; indeed, she sees herself as a woman for whom "tragedy was someone not liking my book".
But into her happy family comes a situation which overshadows all else: the eldest of Reta's three daughters becomes a bag lady on a Toronto street corner, obsessed by goodness, but refusing to speak or be spoken to. This threnody of loss and grief, and Reta's consequent self-questioning, is at the heart of the narrative. Running alongside are chapters taking up Reta's other selves, each narrated in a very different register: Reta as the translator of French feminist texts; Reta as purposeful, and increasingly driven letter writer on the subject of women's exclusion; the frayed author trying to complete her sequel, Thyme in Bloom, in the face of harassment by an editor of woefully dumb and obdurate incomprehension. This woman of many parts allows Shields to reflect--wittily, thoughtfully, playfully, and with wicked subversiveness--on issues of power, on the nature of goodness, the meaning of family, and the place of women. Crucially, she asks how--or even whether--women's voices are heard and "read", how they are (re)interpreted, and given value in the culture. It is these brave and still necessary, if no longer "fashionable", questions, and Carol Shields' enormous capacity to entertain so wisely and unflinchingly, that make Unless such a joy to read.--Ruth Petrie
Praise for Carol Shields:
‘Her perceptions are so quick, her style is so acute, that she can tack a breath to the page and skewer a thought on the wing. It is her speciality to isolate moments that remain distinct in the mind for years, perhaps for a lifetime.’ Hilary Mantel, Sunday Times
‘Few writers could make a book about what it means to be alone this charming.’ Observer
‘A wonderful, powerful book, written in a style which combines simplicity and elegance. Deeply moving.’ Joanne Harris
‘Shields writes like an angel, awesome in the intelligence of her observations and never less than elegant in expressing them.’ David Robson, Sunday Telegraph
‘It takes the vessel of fiction in its hands and hurls it to the floor…a masterpiece.’ Rachel Cusk, New Statesman
‘As poised and wise a novel as any you will read this year.’ Tim Adams, Observer
‘Our most intelligent and beguiling observer…“Unless” is her most raw and intentful novel yet.’ Penny Perrick, Sunday Times