Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Fiction Short Stories (single Author)

Dressing Up for the Carnival

by (author) Carol Shields

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Feb 2001
Short Stories (single author), Contemporary Women, 21st Century
  • Audio cassette

    Publish Date
    Apr 2002
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2001
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


From one of Canada's best-loved, award-winning authors comes a surprising treasure trove: Carol Shields distilling her wisdom, elegance, insouciant sense of humour and eroticism into twenty-two delightful stories. The title story sets the stage: a Shakespearean prologue in which the narrative flame jumps from character to character, each of them dressed up and putting their best foot forward, conscious of costuming themselves for the daily carnival of life. Playful, graceful, acutely observed and generous of spirit, these stories are Carol Shields at her most accomplished and appealing.

About the author

Carol Shields was born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1935 and moved to Canada, at the age of 22, after studying at the University of Exeter in England and the University of Ottawa. She was the author of over 20 books, including plays, poetry, essays, short fiction, novels, a work of criticism on Susanna Moodie, and a biography of Jane Austen. Her 1993 novel The Stone Diaries won the Governor General's Award for Fiction, the American Book Critics' Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. It was also a runner up for the Booker Prize, bringing her an international following. Larry's Party (also available from BTC Audiobooks) won England's Orange Prize, given to the best book by a woman writer in the English-speaking world. Carol Shields died in July 2003 in Victoria after a long struggle with cancer.

Carol Shields' profile page

Excerpt: Dressing Up for the Carnival (by (author) Carol Shields)

Chapter One

All over town people are putting on their costumes.

Tamara has flung open her closet door; just to see her standing there is to feel a squeeze of the heart. She loves her clothes. She knows her clothes. Her favorite moment of the day is this moment, standing at the closet door, still a little dizzy from her long night of tumbled sleep, biting her lip, thinking hard, moving the busy hangers along the rod, about to make up her mind.

Yes! The yellow cotton skirt with the big patch pockets and the hand detail around the hem. How fortunate to own such a skirt. And the white blouse. What a blouse! Those sleeves, that neckline with its buttoned flap, the fullness in the yoke that reminds her of the morris dancers she and her boyfriend Bruce saw at the Exhibition last year.

Next she adds her new straw belt; perfect. A string of yellow beads. Earrings of course. Her bone sandals. And bare legs, why not?

She never checks the weather before she dresses; her clothes are the weather, as powerful in their sunniness as the strong, muzzy early morning light pouring into the narrow street by the bus stop, warming the combed crown of her hair and fueling her with imagination. She taps a sandaled foot lightly on the pavement, waiting for the number 4 bus, no longer just Tamara, clerk-receptionist for the Youth Employment Bureau, but a woman in a yellow skirt. A passionate woman dressed in yellow. A Passionate, Vibrant Woman About To Begin Her Day. Her Life.

Roger, aged thirty, employed by the Gas Board, is coming out of a corner grocer's carrying a mango in his left hand. He went in to buy an apple and came out with this. At the cash register he refused a bag, preferring to carry this thing, this object, in his bare hand. The price was $1.29. He's a little surprised at how heavy it is, a tight seamless leather skin enclosing soft pulp, or so he imagines. He has never bought a mango before, never eaten one, doesn't know what a mango tastes like or how it's prepared. Cooked like a squash? Sliced and sugared like a peach? He has no intention of eating it, not now anyway, maybe never. Its weight reminds him of a first-class league ball, but larger, longer, smooth skinned, and ripely green. Mango, mango. An elliptical purse, juice-filled, curved for the palm of the human hand, his hand.

He is a man of medium height, burly, divorced, wearing an open-necked shirt, hurrying back to work after his coffee break. But at this moment he freezes and sees himself freshly: a man carrying a mango in his left hand. Already he's accustomed to it; in fact, it's starting to feel lighter and drier, like a set of castanets which has somehow attached itself to his left arm. Any minute now he'll break out into a cha-cha-cha right here in front of the Gas Board. The shriveled fate he sometimes sees for himself can be postponed if only he puts his mind to it. Who would have thought it of him? Not his ex-wife Lucile, not his co-workers, not his boss, not even himself.

And the Borden sisters are back from their ski week in Happy Valley. They've been back for a month now, in fact, so why are they still wearing those little plastic ski passes on the zipper tabs of their jackets? A good question. I SKIED HAPPY MOUNTAIN these passes say. The Bordens wear them all over town, at the shopping center, in the parking lot. It's spring, the leaves are unfolding on the hedges in front of the post office, but the Borden girls, Karen and Sue, still carry on their bodies, and in their faces too, the fresh wintry cold of the slopes, the thrill of powder snow and stinging sky. (The air up there chimes with echoes, a bromide of blue.) It would be an exaggeration to say the Borden sisters swagger; it would be going too far. They move like young ponies, quivery and thoughtful, with the memory of expended effort and banked curves. They speak to each other in voices that are loud and musical, and their skin, so clear, pink, bright, and healthy, traps the sunshine beneath its surface. With one hand, walking along, they stroke the feathering-out tops of hedges in front of the post office, and with the other they pull and tug on those little plasticized tags—I SKIED HAPPY MOUNTAIN. You might say it's a kind of compulsion, as though they can't help themselves.

And then there's 'Wanda from the bank who has been sent on the strangest of errands. It happened in this way: Mr. Wishcourt, the bank manager where Wanda works, has just bought a new baby carriage for his wife, or rather, for their new baby son, Samuel James. The baby carriage was an impulsive lunch-hour purchase, he explains to Wanda, looking shamefaced but exuberant: an English pram, high-wheeled, majestically hooded, tires like a Rolls-Royce, a beauty, but the fool thing, even when folded up, refuses to fit in the back of his Volvo. Would she object? It would take perhaps three-quarters of an hour. It's a fine day. He'll draw her a plan on a sheet of paper, put an X where his house is. He knows how she loves walking, that she gets restless in the afternoon sometimes, sitting in her little airless cage. He would appreciate it so much. And so would his wife and little Sam. Would she mind? He's never before asked her to make coffee or do personal errands. It's against his policy, treating his employees like that. But just this once?

Wanda sets off awkwardly. She is, after all, an awkward woman, who was formerly an awkward girl with big girlish teeth and clumsy shoulders. The pram's swaying body seems to steer her at first, instead of her steering it. Such a chunky rolling oblong, black and British with its wambling, bossy, outsized keel. "Excuse me," she says, and "Sorry." Without meaning to, she forces people over to the edge of the sidewalks, crowds them at the street corners, even rubs up against them with the big soft tires.

All she gets back are smiles. Or kindly little nods that say: "It's not your fault" or "How marvelous" or "What a picture!" After a bit she gets the hang of steering. This is a technical marvel she's pushing along, the way it takes the curbs, soundlessly, with scarcely any effort at all. Engineering at its most refined and comical. Her hands rest lightly on the wide white handlebar. It might be made of ivory or alabaster or something equally precious, it's so smooth and cool to the touch.

By the time Wanda reaches Pine Street she feels herself fully in charge. Beneath the leafy poplars, she and the carriage have become a single entity. Gliding, melding, a silvery hum of wheels and a faint, pleasing adhesive resistance as the tires roll along suburban asphalt. The weight of her fingertips is enough to keep it in motion, in control, and she takes the final corners with grace. Little Sam is going to love his new rolling home, so roomy and rhythmic, like a dark boat sailing forward in tune with his infant breathing and the bump-dee-bump of his baby heart.

She stops, leans over, and reaches inside. There's no one about; no one sees her, only the eyes inside her head that have rehearsed this small gesture in dreams. She straightens the blanket, pulling it smooth, pats it into place. "Shhh," she murmurs, smiling. "There, there, now."

Mr. Gilman is smiling too. His daughter-in-law, who considers him a prehistoric bore, has invited him to dinner. This happens perhaps once a month; the telephone rings early in the morning. "We'd love to have you over tonight," she says. "Just family fare, I'm afraid, leftovers."

"I'd be delighted," he always says, even though the word leftovers gives him, every time she says it, a little ping of injury.

At age eighty he can be observed in his obverse infancy, metaphorically sucking and tonguing the missing tooth of his life. He knows what he looks like: the mirror tells all—eyes like water sacks, crimson arcs around the ears, a chin that betrays him, the way it mooches and wobbles while he thrashes around in his head for one of those rumpled anecdotes that seem only to madden his daughter-in-law. Better to keep still and chew. "Scrumptious," he always says, hoping to win her inhospitable heart, but knowing he can't.

Today he decides to buy her flowers. Why-oh-why has he never thought of this before! Daffodils are selling for $1.99 a half dozen. A bargain. It must be spring, he thinks, looking around. Why not buy two bunches, or three? Why not indeed? Or four?

They form a blaze of yellow in his arms, a sweet propitiating little fire. He knows he should take them home immediately and put them in water for tonight, but he's reluctant to remove the green paper wrapping which lends a certain legitimacy; these aren't flowers randomly snatched from the garden; these are florist's flowers, purchased as an offering, an oblation.

There seems nothing to do but carry them about with him all day. He takes them along to the bank, the drugstore, to his appointment with the foot specialist, his afternoon card club at the Sunset Lodge. Never has he received more courteous attention, such quick service. The eyes of strangers appear friendlier than usual. "I am no worse off than the average person," he announces to himself. He loses, gracefully, at canasta, then gets a seat on the bus, a seat by the window. The pale flowers in his arms spell evanescence, gaiety. "Hello there," a number of people call out to him. He is clearly a man who is expected somewhere, anticipated. A charming gent, elegant and dapper, propounding serious questions, bearing gifts, flowers. A man in disguise.

Ralph Eliot, seventeen years old, six feet tall, killingly handsome, and the best halfback the school team has seen in years, has carelessly left his football helmet hanging on a hook on the back of his bedroom door. An emergency of the first order; his ten-year-old sister Mandy is summoned to bring it to the playing field.

She runs all the way up Second Avenue; at the traffic light she strikes a pose, panting, then pounds furiously the whole length of Sargent Street, making it in four minutes flat. She carries the helmet by its tough plastic chin strap and as she runs along, it bangs against her bare leg. She feels her breath blazing into a spray of heroic pain, and as her foot rounds on the pavement, a filament of recognition is touched. The exactitude of the gesture doubles and divides inside her head, and for the first time she comprehends who her brother is, that deep-voiced stranger whose bedroom is next to her own. Today, for a minute, she is her brother. She is Ralph Eliot, age seventeen, six feet tall, who later this afternoon will make a dazzling, lazy touchdown, bringing reward and honor to his name, and hers.

Susan Gourley, first-year arts student, has been assigned Beckett's Waiting for Godot. She carries it under her arm so that the title is plainly visible. She is a girl with a look of lusterless inattention and a reputation for drowsiness, but she's always known this to be a false assessment. She's biding her time, waiting; today she strides along, strides, her book flashing under her arm. She is a young woman who is reading a great classic. Vistas of possibility unfold like money.

Molly Beale's briny old body has been propelled downtown by her cheerful new pacemaker, and there she bumps into Bert Lessing, the city councillor, whose navy blue beret, complete with military insignia, rides pertly over his left ear. They converse like lovers. They bristle with wit. They chitter like birds.

Jeanette Foster is sporting a smart chignon. Who does she think she is! Who does she think she is?

A young woman, recently arrived in town and rather lonely, carries her sandwiches to work in an old violin case. This is only temporary. Tomorrow she may use an ordinary paper bag or eat in the cafeteria.

We cannot live without our illusions, thinks X, an anonymous middle-aged citizen who, sometimes, in the privacy of his own bedroom, in the embrace of happiness, waltzes about in his wife's lace-trimmed nightgown. His wife is at bingo, not expected home for an hour. He lifts the blind an inch and sees the sun setting boldly behind his pear tree, its mingled coarseness and refinement giving an air of confusion. Everywhere he looks he observes cycles of consolation and enhancement, and now it seems as though the evening itself is about to alter its dimensions, becoming more (and also less) than what it really is.

Editorial Reviews

"A radiant gift, a brilliant archive, a book of common prayer for those who appreciate the transcendence of all that is prosaic...this latest clutch of stories is rich with a poetic intensity seldom present in contemporary fiction today. Dressing Up for the Carnival is a book to be savoured, the kind of book a dedicated reader will place gently on the bedside table, doling out one story each night to make the book last longer." —Winnipeg Free Press

"Here's Shields doing what she does so marvellously: taking an ordinary, over-looked object and re-illuminating it, offering us a chance to meditate on ignored corners or fragments of our own lives.... There's much intelligence here and a singular inventiveness enlivened by odd passions and deft humour...dazzling and wickedly funny." —The Globe and Mail

"Dressing up for the Carnival is a taste of something different from Shields. It is a gourmand's delight with each tale centered around one stabilizing theme: life is a carnival.... The tenderness of Shields' narration is her trademark. Her gift of narrowing the telescope and uncoiling the springs of private thoughts — those that blow past in seconds — is her particular genius." —New Brunswick Telegraph

"Shields is an alchemist who can somehow produce gold from the mundane.... Every story in this collection is a small, glittering masterpiece." —National Post

User Reviews

Dressing up Review

just finished reading Pulitzer Prize Winner Carol Shield’s collection of short stories. I have enjoyed her work in the past, her novels, especially “Larry’s Party.”
One thing I will say about “Dressing up for the Carnival” is that I was continually surprised. Shields is a writer who changes from my viewpoint to the next with ease, someone who can seemingly be behind anyone’s eyes and you would except her to be there. The stories range from a meek writer who wants to find the perfect scarf for her daughter to a grandfather who started a nudist camp. The objects in her story are brought to life and we can see how objects can hold such deep meaning.
My favourite story was ” Invention” a sweet and amusing tale of all the people in a family who had invented things. As a grammar nerd I was so intrigued to see the stories behind the semi colon and the hyphen, so amusing the think of people actually inventing these things, before realizing that, why yes, someone had to invent them after all.
I like the reality of the stories. They almost felt gritty.
All in all it was an easy read, a great collection and continually changing. However, as I usually find with most shorts, the stories and characters just did not stay with me.
3.5/5 stars.

Other titles by Carol Shields