I’m not sure if it was the melancholy tone, the lack of plot, or the fact that the main character is a writer writing about writing… but I had a lot of trouble getting into the book. Fortunately, I persevered and past the halfway point I finally got into Unless by Carol Shields.
“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.
I want to read more by Carol Shields despite my indifference with Unless. The writing is very introspective, forlorn, and I had trouble identifying with Reta. However, the prose is beautifully written and I often found myself smiling at a passage or nodding along in agreement.
Carol Shields gives Reta wisdom and philosophical musings which I found difficult to handle for more than a few pages. Shields, however, balances the mundane with the contemplative perfectly, immersing Reta in day-to-day life despite her distress.
And just to share a little nugget: I found this line particularly amusing, seeing as Carol Sheilds herself was a female writer too.
“I too am aware of being in incestuous waters, a woman writer who is writing about a woman writer who is writing.”