'Unless' by Carol Shields is the 11th book in my TBR challenge. It is nice to look back and see what a wonderful eclectic mix of books it has been; sometimes I worry that I read the same kind of novel all the time but this challenge has had real variety. Carol Shields seems to have won every prize worth winning on what seems to me to be a very modest output. I sat and read to the end yesterday afternoon in extreme writing avoidance, the further behind I get in NaNoWriMo the more other things I find myself wanting to do ... you see, now I am writing this review instead of getting on ... ok, little self discipline, I'm going to stop now and write at least 500 words.
This book reminds me of 'The Lorax' by Dr Seuss. In it there is a small pile of rocks (all that remains of the Onceler's factory) with the one word 'Unless', and as the small boy learns at the end of the story, "Unless someone like you, cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it's not." It feels almost as if Carol Shields could have used this as her inspiration. I recall now how much I loved Larry's Party and I realise in this story too very little happens, Nora goes away and Nora returns, and it feels almost like a 'blip' in Reta's life, nothing, and yet everything, has happened in the meantime. Reta works as a translator for Danielle Westerman, an elderly, well known and respected writer and poet, but on the side has started her own writing and is working on a second novel. She has a 'husband', three daughters, a mother-in-law and a small group of intimate friends. The quiet domestication is thrown into relief by the sudden disappearance of her eldest daughter Nora, who then reappears begging on a street corner in Toronto. She is living at a local shelter and refuses to talk with her family or to come home, but sits with a sign around her neck that says the simple word 'Goodness'. Reta meanders through the ordinariness of her life trying to make sense of what her daughter is doing, searching for an explanations, in her own parenting and their family life and in the outside world. I find myself coming back to the words subtle and understated every time I have really liked a book, and I'm afraid they apply here too, and since it is Nanowrimo I also find myself asking 'how does she do that' and 'what is it that makes this person feel real' and 'why is this seemingly irrelevant digression actually interesting and almost vital to the story'. She tells us the backstory of the house, and it's important because their home is symbolic of the family security and continuity. Even the dog, who features quite prominently, takes on an element of that role; the two younger daughters want to use him to tempt Nora back, one sight of him, they think, will bring her to her senses and remind her of what she has given up. Reta's relationship with Danielle links her to the world of literature and the intellect, the decades of her life that Reta is laboriously translating from the french seem to put in perspective the minutiae of everyday life. And yet nothing is so compartmentalised, everything is drawn together to create the whole:
"Seven o'clock. I reach into the oven and remove the foil from the lasagna, then shut the red kitchen curtains, which is my signal to my mother-in-law next door to out on her coat and walk up the hill and across the leaf-strewn lawn for dinner. She takes her evening meals with us, and we have used the curtain signal for close to twenty years. She'll be watching from her darkened sunroom, waiting patiently, her nose already powdered, a dash of lipstick applied, her bladder emptied, her house keys in her pocket, and it will take her exactly four minutes to travel the hundred yards uphill to our back door, which I leave unlocked. Why do I have red curtains in my kitchen? Because Simone de Beauvoir loved red curtains; because Danielle Westerman loved red curtains out of respect for Beauvoir, and I love them because of Danielle. They serve, when nothing else quite does, as the sign of home and comfort, ease, companionability, food and drink and family." (p.169-170)
Then Reta begins writing letters, to authors and journalists that she reads. To begin with you think she is really sending them, though it transpires that they are not sent, sometimes not even really written, merely composed in her head. She has the need to tell people what is happening to her, what is happening to Nora, and asking them to make sense of it, or sometimes blaming them for being part of the problem. All the letters address the marginalisation of women in our culture's intellectual life. She is not angry, more weary, and even apologetic (which she acknowledges as part of the problem of course) but still feels it is part of her seeking to understand why her daughter seems to be trying to reduce herself down to nothing. (This in response to a magazine article):
"Perhaps you were tired when you ran through your testicular hit list of literary big cats; trying to even out the numbers may have seemed too much of a reach or too obvious in its political correctness. But did you notice something even more significant: that there us not a single woman mentioned in the whole body of your very long article (16 pages, double columns), not in any context, not once? As though these great literary men came into the world through their own efforts. Bean counting is tiring, and tiresome, but your voice, Mr. Valkner, and your platform (Comment) carry great authority. You certainly understand that the women who fall so casually under your influence (mea culpa) are made to serve an apprenticeship of self-denigration." (p. 164-5)
So, in a way, Nora becomes symbolic of all women who perceive the pointlessness of their own efforts, who are overwhelmed by the weight of trying to fight against the world that views them as irrelevant. She makes the point more forcefully when Reta's editor dies in a freak accident and is replaced by a young man with wild ideas for her novel; this involves a rewrite that will take the story away from the woman Alicia and will instead make Roman the focus of both the events and the existential crisis. Reta finds herself unable to resist the force of his uninterruptible flow of argument and explanation, she quite literally cannot get a word in edgewise, and she is almost, almost swept away:
" '...I am talking about Roman being the moral centre of the book, and Alicia, for all her charms, is not capable of that role, surely you can see that. She writes fashion articles. She talks to her cat. She does yoga. She makes rice casseroles.'
'It's because she's a woman.'
'That's not the issue at all. Surely you - '
'But it is the issue.'
'She is unable to make a claim to - She is undisciplined in her - She can't focus the way Roman - She changes her mind about - She lacks - A reader, the serious reader that I have in mind, would never accept her as the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art that acts as a critique of our society while, at the same time, unrolling itself like a carpet of inevitability, narrativistically speaking.'
'Because she's a woman.'
'Not at all, not at all.'
'Because she's a woman.' " (p.285-6)
We have this big theme; women in society, their place, their contribution, and it's lack of acknowledgement, being played out both by Nora and by Reta in the book she is writing, but beside it all is the relationship between mother and daughter. For me the novel is also about separation, as a parent, from your child, and how hard it is to let them go off into the big bad world. It's not that you don't trust them, you hope you have armed them with all the weapons they might need to defend themselves, but you don't trust the world not to have something nasty up its sleeve that will catch them unawares and crush all the spirit out of them. Reta sees Nora being crushed, but is unable to help her, she revolts against the feeling but there is nothing she can do, and it is the powerlessness that is at the centre of the book:
"They are both studying for exams. Just because their older sister is living the life of a derelict doesn't mean there will be no exams. French, history, maths, language arts. This is monstrous: that exams are being scheduled, that George W Bush exists, that Mr Scribano fell downstairs, that people are booking flights for their Christmas holidays, that Danielle Westerman accuses me of insufficient sorrow, that I am calmly wiping down the kitchen counters after a dinner of shepherd's pie and spinach salad, while at the same time plotting what Alicia all say to Roman about the need to cancel the wedding, and observing that outside it is snowing and the drifts are building thickly sculptured walls against the north side of our house, and Tom is settling down in his favourite chair with a new book on trilobites that arrived in today's mail. The wind is blowing and blowing. I am still I, though it's harder and harder to pronounce that simple pronoun and maintain composure." (p.196-7)
I have 'Dressing up for the carnival' and 'Small Ceremonies' both loitering on the shelves. I would probably be safe in saying, pick up anything Carol Shields has written and you would not be disappointed.