“Unless you’re lucky, unless you’re healthy, fertile, unless you’re loved and fed, unless you’re offered what others are offered, you go down in the darkness, down to despair.”
Reta Winters has many reasons to be happy: Her three almost grown daughters. Her twenty-year relationship with their father. Her work translating the larger-than-life French intellectual and feminist Danielle Westerman. Her modest success with a novel of her own, and the clamour of her American publisher for a sequel. Then in the spring of her forty-fourth year, all the quiet satisfactions of her well-lived life disappear in a moment: her eldest daughter Norah suddenly runs from the family and ends up mute and begging on a Toronto street corner, with a hand-lettered sign reading GOODNESS around her neck.
GOODNESS. With the inconceivable loss of her daughter like a lump in her throat, Reta tackles the mystery of this message. What in this world has broken Norah, and what could bring her back to the provisional safety of home? Reta’s wit is the weapon she most often brandishes as she kicks against the pricks that have brought her daughter down: Carol Shields brings us Reta’s voice in all its poignancy, outrage and droll humour.
Piercing and sad, astute and evocative, full of tenderness and laughter, Unless will stand with The Stone Diaries in the canon of Carol Shields’s fiction.close this panel
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. To lose. To have lost. I believed these visitations of darkness lasted only a few minutes or hours and that these saddened people, in between bouts, were occupied, as we all were, with the useful monotony of happiness. But happiness is not what I thought. Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.
In my new life -- the summer of the year 2000 -- I am attempting to “count my blessings.” Everyone I know advises me to take up this repellent strategy, as though they really believe a dramatic loss can be replaced by the renewed appreciation of all one has been given. I have a husband, Tom, who loves me and is faithful to me and is very decent looking as well, tallish, thin, and losing his hair nicely. We live in a house with a paid-up mortgage, and our house is set in the prosperous rolling hills of Ontario, only an hour’s drive north of Toronto. Two of our three daughters, Natalie, fifteen, and Christine, sixteen, live at home. They are intelligent and lively and attractive and loving, though they too have shared in the loss, as has Tom.
And I have my writing.
“You have your writing!” friends say. A murmuring chorus: But you have your writing, Reta. No one is crude enough to suggest that my sorrow will eventually become material for my writing, but probably they think it.
And it’s true. There is a curious and faintly distasteful comfort, at the age of forty-three, forty-four in September, in contemplating what I have managed to write and publish during those impossibly childish and sunlit days before I understood the meaning of grief. “My Writing”: this is a very small poultice to hold up against my damaged self, but better, I have been persuaded, than no comfort at all.
It’s June, the first year of the new century, and here’s what I’ve written so far in my life. I’m not including my old schoolgirl sonnets from the seventies -- Satin-slippered April, you glide through time / And lubricate spring days, de dum, de dum -- and my dozen or so fawning book reviews from the early eighties. I am posting this list not on the screen but on my consciousness, a far safer computer tool and easier to access:
1. A translation and introduction to Danielle Westerman’s book of poetry, Isolation, April 1981, one month before our daughter Norah was born, a home birth naturally; a midwife; you could almost hear the guitars plinking in the background, except we did not feast on the placenta as some of our friends were doing at the time. My French came from my Québécoise mother, and my acquaintance with Danielle from the University of Toronto, where she taught French civilization in my student days. She was a poor teacher, hesitant and in awe, I think, of the tanned, healthy students sitting in her classroom, taking notes worshipfully and stretching their small suburban notion of what the word civilization might mean. She was already a recognized writer of kinetic, tough-corded prose, both beguiling and dangerous. Her manner was to take the reader by surprise. In the middle of a flattened rambling paragraph, deceived by warm stretches of reflection, you came upon hard cartilage.
I am a little uneasy about claiming Isolation as my own writing, but Dr. Westerman, doing one of her hurrying, over-the-head gestures, insisted that translation, especially of poetry, is a creative act. Writing and translating are convivial, she said, not oppositional, and not at all hierarchical. Of course, she would say that. My introduction to Isolation was certainly creative, though, since I had no idea what I was talking about.
I hauled it out recently and, while I read it, experienced the Burrowing of the Palpable Worm of Shame, as my friend Lynn Kelly calls it. Pretension is what I see now. The part about art transmuting the despair of life to the “merely frangible,” and poetry’s attempt to “repair the gap between ought and naught” -- what on earth did I mean? Too much Derrida might be the problem. I was into all that pretty heavily in the early eighties.
2. After that came “The Brightness of a Star,” a short story that appeared in An Anthology of Young Ontario Voices (Pink Onion Press, 1985). It’s hard to believe that I qualified as “a young voice” in 1985, but, in fact, I was only twenty-nine, mother of Norah, aged four, her sister Christine, aged two, and about to give birth to Natalie -- in a hospital this time. Three daughters, and not even thirty. “How did you find the time?” people used to chorus, and in that query I often registered a hint of blame: was I neglecting my darling sprogs for my writing career? Well, no. I never thought in terms of career. I dabbled in writing. It was my macramé, my knitting. Not long after, however, I did start to get serious and joined a local “writers’ workshop” for women, which met every second week, for two hours, where we drank coffee and had a good time and deeply appreciated each other’s company, and that led to:
3. “Icon,” a short story, rather Jamesian, 1986. Gwen Reidman, the only published author in the workshop group, was our leader. The Glenmar Collective (an acronym of our first names – not very original) was what we called ourselves. One day Gwen said, moving a muffin to her mouth, that she was touched by the “austerity” of my short story -- which was based, but only roughly, on my response to the Russian icon show at the Art Gallery of Ontario. My fictional piece was a case of art “embracing/repudiating art,” as Gwen put it, and then she reminded us of the famous “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” and the whole aesthetic of art begetting art, art worshipping art, which I no longer believe in, by the way. Either you do or you don’t. The seven of us, Gwen, Lorna, Emma Allen, Nan, Marcella, Annette, and I (my name is Reta Winters -- pronounced Ree-tah) self-published our pieces in a volume titled Incursions and Interruptions, throwing in fifty dollars each for the printing bill. The five hundred copies sold quickly in the local bookstores, mostly to our friends and families. Publishing was cheap, we discovered. What a surprise. We called ourselves the Stepping Stone Press, and in that name we expressed our mild embarrassment at the idea of self-publishing, but also the hope that we would “step” along to authentic publishing in the very near future. Except Gwen, of course, who was already there. And Emma, who was beginning to publish op-ed pieces in the Globe and Mail.
Born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1935, Carol Shields moved to Canada at the age of twenty-two, after studying at the University of Exeter in England, and then obtained her M.A. at the University of Ottawa. She started publishing poetry in her thirties, and wrote her first novel, Small Ceremonies, in 1976. Over the next three decades, Shields would become the author of over twenty books, including plays, poetry, essays, short fiction, novels, a book of criticism on Susanna Moodie and a biography of Jane Austen. Her work has been translated into twenty-two languages.
In addition to her writing, Carol Shields worked as an academic, teaching at the University of Ottawa, the University of British Columbia and the University of Manitoba. In 1996, she became chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. She lived for fifteen years in Winnipeg and often used it as a backdrop to her fiction, perhaps most notably in Republic of Love. Shields also raised five children — a son and four daughters — with her husband Don, and often spoke of juggling early motherhood with her nascent writing career. When asked in one interview whether being a mother changed her as a writer, she replied, “Oh, completely. I couldn’t have been a novelist without being a mother. It gives you a unique witness point of the growth of personality. It was a kind of biological component for me that had to come first. And my children give me this other window on the world.”
The Stone Diaries, her fictional biography of Daisy Goodwill, a woman who drifts through her life as child, wife, mother and widow, bewildered by her inability to understand any of these roles, received excellent reviews. The book won a Governor General’s Literary Award and a Pulitzer Prize, and was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, bringing Shields an international following. Her novel Swann was made into a film (1996), as was The Republic of Love (2003; directed by Deepa Mehta). Larry’s Party, published in several countries and adapted into a musical stage play, won England’s Orange Prize, given to the best book by a woman writer in the English-speaking world. And Shields’s final novel, Unless, was shortlisted for the Booker, Orange and Giller prizes and the Governor General’s Literary Award, and won the Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction.
Shields’s novels are shrewdly observed portrayals of everyday life. Reviewers praised her for exploring such universal themes as loneliness and lost opportunities, though she also celebrated the beauty and small rewards that are so often central to our happiness yet missing from our fiction. In an eloquent afterword to Dropped Threads, Shields says her own experience taught her that life is not a mountain to be climbed, but more like a novel with a series of chapters.
Carol Shields was always passionate about biography, both in her writing and her reading, and in 2001 she published a biography of Jane Austen. For Shields, Austen was among the greatest of novelists and served as a model: “Jane Austen has figured out the strategies of fiction for us and made them plain.” In 2002, Jane Austen won the coveted Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction. A similar biographical impulse lay behind the two Dropped Threads anthologies Carol Shields edited with Marjorie Anderson; their contributors were encouraged to write about those experiences that women are normally not able to talk about. “Our feeling was that women are so busy protecting themselves and other people that they still feel they have to keep quiet about some subjects,” Shields explained in an interview.
Shields spoke often of redeeming the lives of people by recording them in her own works, “especially that group of women who came between the two great women's movements…. I think those women’s lives were often thought of as worthless because they only kept house and played bridge. But I think they had value.”
In 1998, Shields was diagnosed with breast cancer. Speaking on her illness, Shields once said, “It’s made me value time in a way that I suppose I hadn’t before. I’m spending my time listening, listening to what's going around, what's happening around me instead of trying to get it all down.” In 2000, Shields and her husband Don moved from Winnipeg to Victoria, where they lived until her passing on July 16, 2003, from complications of breast cancer, at age 68.close this panel
“The beauty of Ms. Shields’ writing is the clarity and accessibility of her words. She treats the reader as an intimate, revealing details in a sympathetic voice. . . . Ms. Shields’ book is invaluable . . .” -- New Brunswick Reader
“In Unless . . ., Carol Shields’s brilliant latest novel, she explores the notion of goodness and the writing process -- and how society tries to shuffle smart uncompromising women off to the margins of life. In a lesser mortal’s hands, such a book would be an earnest snore, but Shields wields a wicked wit that hits close to the bone. Think the word “unless” implies ambivalence? This book is a sure thing.” -- Chatelaine
“[Y]et another delectable investigation into human folly . . .” -- Library Journal
“Warmth, passion and wisdom come together in Shields’s remarkably supple prose. Unless, a harrowing but ultimately consoling story of one family’s anguish and healing, proves her mastery of extraordinary fictions about ordinary life.” -- Amazon.com
“Brilliant, humane and deeply satisfying…. It is part of Shields’s genius that she so often offers up humour and compassion on the same plate -- sometimes spiced with a subtle political comment or two. But, I repeat, this is only a part of her genius. The true gift that she gives us is that of her enormous wisdom, a wisdom that is achingly apparent in this amazing combination of darkness and light, humour and pathos called Unless. The fact that there are no clear answers to the questions that surround the nature of goodness, happiness, sorrow, does not mean that these conditions should remain unexamined. It is examinations of this kind that enhance life itself. And who better than this author to show us where to look, what to pay attention to? What better guide than a book like Unless, and what better companion than Carol Shields?” -- Jane Urquhart, The Globe and Mail
“Unless does offer hope simply in its accomplishment, in its soothing spirit of goodness that somehow transcends both character and narrative.” -- National Post
“Once again, Carol Shields takes the lives of ordinary people and exposes the human heart at its best….life in general and the lives of women in particular are viewed in Shields’ work with an elegant confluence of simplicity and complexity.” -- Times-Colonist
“…poignant, yet often astringently funny….as ever, Shields’ graceful prose is a pleasure to read. She has a remarkable way of describing things one might already know, but she does so in surprising, fresh and distinctly new ways, ways that allow the reader to understand something anew.” -- Winnipeg Free Press
“Carol Shields is one of that small group of writers -- among them, Alice Munro, Richard Ford, Jayne Anne Phillips, and yes, Joan Clark -- capable of making the ordinary utterly and completely extraordinary.” -- The Calgary Herald
“‘Unless’ is a signal word, curious, a warning and a sign. As this is a signal novel, profound and resonant, written with the virtuosity and understated brilliance that is distinctive to Carol Shields. Quite simply, Unless is a masterpiece. Brava! Brava!” -- The Ottawa Citizen
“If writers were rivers, Shields would flow more deeply and more mysteriously than it would appear from standing on the bank.” -- Kitchener-Waterloo Record
“Reading the book is like having an intimate conversation with an old friend….Funny and sad, comic and poignant all at the same time, Unless is the continuation of a conversation that has been ongoing among women for generations.” -- The Chronicle-Herald (Halifax)
“Generous and inquiring of heart, muted in its palette, this is a grammar of melancholy: of a particular sadness, both domestic and worldly, that arrives unbidden and settles in…. Outrage, humour, compassion, and the elegant arcs of language that distinguish Carol Shields’s enduring body of work: these are here in spades. Complacency is absent, and anything that smells of defeat. Unless is a graceful summing-up -- a backward glance, an acknowledgement of this moment, and, finally, the truest assurance that art can give: the future starts now.” -- Bill Richardson, Georgia Straight
“Unless is a triumph; a complex and rich study of family, the illusion of happiness, the process of writing and what it means to be a woman trying to find a place in a literal and/or literary world.” -- The Edmonton Journal
“A novel for the ages…. Unless is the work of a master writer at the peak of her powers…. Unless has a sense of the timeless about it, a sense that it will be read with as much eagerness 100 years from now as it will be today.” -- Vancouver Sun
“From page one [Shields} commands her place as a writer capable of astounding prose and perspective….It is the kind of writing that makes one stop, take a breath, then reread.” -- The Hamilton Spectator
“…moving, satisfying and unsettling all at once.” -- The Gazette (Montreal)
“[W]ithout question, her most powerful novel to date. . . . [A]t once witty and acute, deeply intelligent and profoundly tender. . . . . This novel offers a tunnel into the light, into an alternate plane where the interior voice of an intelligent woman is heard, astringent, tender and clear.” -- Maclean’s
“[Unless] is altogether engaging, thought-provoking and easily ranks among Shields’ best work.” -- The Kingston-Whig Standard
“Shields shares with fellow Canadian Alice Munro not only her Ontario milieu but also a gift for psychological acuity expressed in limpid, shimmering prose.” -- Booklist
"All novelists worth their fictional salt can create characters; Carol Shields creates lives...As with all her work, the lives she creates [here] are lovingly delineated, shot through with recognizable reality. The writing itself is perhaps better than ever, pellucid and knowing, as naturally paced as breathing itself, yet with images so apt they pounce off the page...Shields' readers will encounter great poignancy and great wisdom in this book...Carol Shields remakes the world and returns it to us, with hope, grace and redeeming life." -- New York Times Book Review (US)
"Like The Stone Diaries and its tour-de-force follow-up novel, Larry's Party, Unless presents itself, almost insistently, as a story about ordinary lives. But then, through her sensitive observation and exacting prose, the author proceeds to flip them over and show us their uncommon depths" -- Washington Post Book World (US)
"Unless is a formidable meditation on reality: it takes the vessel of fiction in its hands and hurls it to the floor. Shields' unambiguous prose is here put to the service of her intellectual daring and the result is a book that speaks without pretension about its strange and singular subject: the relationship between women and culture, the nature of artistic endeavour, and the hostility of female truth to representations of itself...Shields has produced a very, very clever book about motherhood, honour, art, language and love. It is a lament, a punch in the face, an embrace. I want to call it a masterpiece -- but I think I'll leave that for a man to say." -- New Statesman (UK)
"....a deceptively philosophical novel that succeeds in being both disturbing and reassuring in it multiple truths....the always polite, deeply subversive Shields has managed to expose, even explode, the artifice at the heart of fiction's conventions, those slightly dishonest, unwritten rules of which everyone is aware but which no one really mentions....Shields, in common with many North American writers, possesses that mastery of the ordinary that makes fiction breathe." -- Irish Times
"Unless is an extraordinary and dangerous novel. Dangerous because, like good philosophy, it asks the most fundamental questions, questions we try to avoid in our daily lives, as we study the 'art of diversion'. There are no easy answers to those questions -- 'what is goodness? what is happiness' -- but what makes a novelist great is the preparedness to ask them -- and Carol Shields asks them more scrupulously and elegantly than most." -- The Scotsman
"Unless is a joy to read, a writer working at the top of her game, bringing a remarkable intelligence to bear on both the human and the literary condition." -- Financial Times (US)
"Mothers have searched for their lost daughters in literature ever since Demeter plunged into the underworld to bring back the errant Persephone. Carol Shields' intriguing new novel mines this rich tradition to moving effect.... Shields invents a heroine forced to discard her suspicion of feminism and tiptoe towards it, learning to ask questions about social exclusion and human justice....This is [her] most interesting novel to date." -- The Independent (UK)
"...the book's challenging structure ultimately reveals its hidden ambitions. Shields once again delivers a stunningly capacious portrait of art's least favourite subject, an ordinary happy life." -- Time Out New York
"With characteristically magical prose and meticulous observation, Shields brings to life Reta's anguish and bewilderment with a vividness that is so moving, so deeply felt, that you linger over every exquisite word, reading it and rereading it, never wanting the page to end. It is a masterpiece -- in the most delicate miniature" -- Daily Mail (UK)
"Reta Winters is a marvelously inventive character whose thought-provoking commentary on the ties between writing, love, art and family are constantly compelling in this unabashedly feminist novel. The icing on the cake is the ending, which introduces a startling but believable twist to the plight of a young woman who 'in doing nothing...has claimed everything'. The result is a landmark book." -- Publishers Weekly (US) starred
"If ever a book deserved to be short-listed for the Booker, it is this one." -- Publishing News (UK)
"It is part of Shields's genius that she so often offers up humour and compassion on the same plate - sometimes spiced with a subtle political comment or two. But this...is only part of her genius. The true gift that she gives us is that of her enormous wisdom, a wisdom that is achingly apparent in this amazing combination of darkness and light, humour and pathos called UNLESS" -- Globe and Mail
"Unless is, in part, a meditation on the worth of a life spent writing -- Reta Winters, its protaganist, is herself a writer...Reta's letters are full of things Carol Shields has clearly long wanted to get off her chest and they have a real engine, energy and sparky animus to them...Read [Unless] for the sheer life of the last chapter wherein the conditional title is explained, but every narrative thread, this not being a comedy, is not tied up." -- The Herald (Glasgow)
"Nobody better captures the comic lunacy of the quotidien...but there is no mistaking the sharp mind in the background....Shields herself must be every editor's dream. She writes like an angel, awesome in the intelligence of her observations and never less than elegant in expressing them." -- Sunday Telegraph (UK)
"Shields is probably our most intelligent and beguiling observer of the everyday drama of common existence. Unless is her most raw and intentful novel yet, centred on tragedy and loss rather than the more expected themes of marital connectedness, the delicate architecture of desire and the necessity of peace, although all these subjects have a place in this exquisite new work. The novel that Reta wants to write is 'about something happening, About characters moving against a 'there'. This is just what her creator has achieved, with a matchless sensitivity that makes you draw in your breath." -- Sunday Times (UK)
"Unless is a fierce novel in which the 'f' word, feminism, rears its head. [It] is a book that celebrates the lives and concerns of women and plumbs the pitfalls of being female but refrains from male-bashing....Reta writes loopy, funny, marvellously outraged letters that she never sends to authors and editors about their omission of women in their discussions of the 'Great Books' or their failure to cite any women in their references....Reta Winters is a spectacular character, a loving, wise, fallible, accomplished and flawed woman who turns inside to seek the answers about her daughter that the world won't provide." -- Rocky Mountain News (US)
"Carol Shields's latest novel [is] her most questing and perhaps most personal yet. Unless is a defence of the art of fiction, but at the same time is deeply sceptical of it. It is intellectual and philosophical, but at the same time celebrates the mundane. Only a writer with the technical skill and warm humanity of Shields is capable of holding such contradictions in the delicate and satisfying balance that she achieves here...Unless is the purest expression of her art. It is required reading." -- The Mail on Sunday (UK)
"Her expertly deft touch with character and place, her sly merging of clues with cluelessness, ultimately blossom, Shields-like, in gold-minted scenes that not only answer the hard questions pointed at the heart but reward every single agonizing moment spent helplessly watching over a lost child in hope she will come home." -- Toronto Star
"Unless is her angriest book to date -- a study in awakening and the belated loss of innocence." -- The Guardian (UK)
"Some books come along at just the right time -- Erica Jong's 'Fear of Flying', Doris Lessing's 'The Golden Notebook' or Syvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar' come to mind -- capturing the exact thoughts and feelings of women at a certain moment in history. Carol Shields' 10th novel Unless is just such a book. In Unless, now the best of her novels, Shields has illuminated not only one woman's life, but has reflected the joys, sorrows and anger found in the lives of many women.....I love this book. It has mattered in my life in a big way that few books matter in a reader's life. I have read it three times now and I will read it again and again, because each reading brings something new and thought-provoking, something disturbing and energizing; each time I find something else to admire in its intricate construction, its precise use of language. It speaks the truth with crystalline clarity." -- The Times-Picayune (US)
"From Pulitzer-winning Carol Shields, a tale about existential disarray that's spiked with feminist outrage and leavened with womanly wit...[Shields] maintains her claim as one of our most gifted and probing novelists." -- Kirkus (US) starred
"Shields shares with fellow Canadian Alice Munro not only her Ontario milieu but also a gift for psychological acuity expressed in limpid, shimmering prose." -- Booklist (US)
“Thoughtfully engaging, Shields has made Unless a true masterwork flowing with emotion, intelligence and the grace of the human condition that is able to bear personal tragedy and eventual triumph.” -- The Outreach Connection
“Carol Shields’ writing is lovely to read. I just someone would sit still and let me read it to them. It sounds so right. Her characters are us, with all our small vanities and strong opinions.” -- Red Deer Advocate
“Shields knows exactly what she's doing, dropping tidbits of information at just the right moment, letting some humour peak through the pain…. Shields’s intelligence is awesome, and it comes across in effortless prose, the kind that makes you stop to read a phrase aloud and marvel at the author’s wondrous skill.” -- NOW
Praise for Carol Shields
“Her particular kind of humanity just dazzles me. It’s the foundation of her commitment to writing as a form of redemption, redeeming the lives of lost or vanished women.” -- Eleanor Wachtel for The Globe and Mail
Praise for Dressing up for the Carnival
“Not reading Shields is as much of a literary omission as overlooking Jane Austen.” -- National Post
Praise for Larry’s Party
“Shields has taken her place alongside such Canadian writers as Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood.” -- The Globe and Mail
Praise for The Stone Diaries
“The Stone Diaries reminds us again why literature matters.” -- The New York Times Book Review
“An impeccable performance … one which will fill her readers with amazed gratitude.” -- Anita Brooknerclose this panel