Top positive review
A Luminous Ordinary Life
on 19 January 2017
This novel won both the Governor General's Literary Award and the Pulitzer Prize, quite a feat in itself, and made possible by Shields's double citizenship in both Canada and USA.
It is an unusual narrative about the life of Daisy Goodwill, that is luminous in its ordinariness. Atwood's introduction sums it up best: "Human life is a mass of statistics only for statisticians: the rest of us live in a world of individuals, and most them are not prominent. Their joys, however, are fully joyful, and their griefs are real. It was the extraordinariness of ordinary people that was Shields's forte."
Daisy is a first-person narrator who refers to herself in the third person, possessing a kind of omniscience that is unusual but nonetheless successfully executed. The reader finds out she is a mistress of reinvention and she makes that the basis of her life story, wilful distorting and embellishing her account, even in its seemingly unspectacular linear sequence from her birth, her childhood, marriage and love (yes in that sequence), motherhood, and eventually death.
But it is only almost midway through her narrative that she makes these illuminating self-reflexive comments which strangely makes visible her sleight of hand: "Maybe now is the time to tell you that Daisy Goodwill has a little trouble with getting things straight; with the truth, that is." And she justifies her embellishments by relating to a more general truth about how we view our past: "Well, a childhood is what anyone wants to remember of it. It leaves behind no fossils, except perhaps in fiction. Which is why you want to take Daisy's representation of events with a grain of salt, a bushel of salt. She is not always reliable when it comes to the details of her life; much of what she has to say is speculative, exaggerated, wildly unlikely."
The momentous events leading up to her birth at the start of the novel is wilfully withheld in her telling, and she forestalls her narrative until she is sure the reader is kept fully under the suspense she has created. Daisy is a crafty autobiographer, and that is half the enjoyment, as the reader joins her in relishing her power over her narrative: "Still, hers is the only account there is, written on air, written with imagination's invisible ink."
Shields has opined in an interview appended at the end of the novel, presumably inspired by Gissing, that "Biography is subject to the warps and gasps of admiration or condemnation, but fiction respects the human trajectory". And by melding the two in her fictional biography of sorts, she has given order to fiction in an unexpected and refreshing way.