I reviewed 'Larry's Party' by Carol Shields way back in 2009, and then 'Unless' in 2013 and 'Small Ceremonies' has been waiting patiently on the shelf for quite some time. It revolves around the Gill family. I should count up some time the number of books I have reviewed that revolve around someone in academia, it feels like it would be a long list; maybe it is just because this is a world that so many writers are familiar with.
While her stories feel quite small on one level they are also tackling themes that are quite universal; the bonds in families in particular in this one, and, my new favourite, the trials of being a middle aged woman. Judith Gill is a biographer, someone who likes to delve into the lives of others, she describes herself as 'incorrigibly curious' (isn't incorrigible such a good word). She is researching Susanna Moodie (who I came across years ago in a poetry collection by Margaret Atwood) and struggling to keep a connection with her increasingly distant and strangely secretive family:
"It is a real life, a matter of record, sewn together like a leather glove with all the years joining, no worse than some and better than many. A private life, complete, deserving decent burial, deserving the sweet black eclipse, but I am setting out to exhume her, searching, prying into the small seams, counting stitches, adding, subtracting, keeping score, invading an area of existence where I've no real rights. I ask the squares of light that fall on the oak table, doesn't this woman deserve the seal of oblivion? It is, after all, what I would want.
But I keep poking away.
No wonder Richard seals his letters with Scotch tape. No wonder Meredith locks her diary, burns her mail, carries the telephone into her room earn she talks. No wonder Martin is driven to subterfuge, not telling me that his latest paper has been turned down by the Renaissance Society. And concealing, for who knows what sinister purposes, his brilliant hanks of wool." (p.34)
She gets a bad bout of flu which confines her to bed for weeks, giving the family time to reflect on the routines that have build up around them, and giving her much too much time for musing about her life and what she might or might not be doing with it. I loved this little moment, when she is beginning to feel better, it speaks volumes about marriage:
"One morning Martin climbed back into bed with me. We scanned the newspapers together and then lay back to listen to the radio. We heard some funny tunes from the Forties, an interview with an ecologist who's passion leaked out over the airwaves, a theatre review, another interview, this one quite funny. I noticed that Matin and I, lying on our backs, laughed in exactly the same places. Almost as though we were reading cue cards. We have never done this before, never lain in bed all morning listening to the radio, laughing together. The novelty of it is striking. it comes as a surprise. And it is all the more surprising because I had thought there could be no more surprises." (p.99)
Judith has more literary aspirations, but lacking inspiration she 'borrows' the plot of an abandoned manuscript she inadvertently read, belonging to the professor who's house they had lived in on sabbatical. When she submits her story to her creative writing teacher she has a fit of conscience and begs him to destroy it. When the teacher's new novel comes out some time later she is horrified to discover he has 'stolen' her 'borrowed' plot. So it turns into this rather convoluted morality story, bringing into question the whole idea of originality. Here Judith's thinking goes round in circles, analysing the actions of a man who she was not sure she liked in the first place:
"Are there no mitigating circumstances in this theft?
Many. Obviously he was desperate. He admitted that much, letting slip the fact that the well had gone dry. He was on the skids, hadn't had a good idea for two years. Poor man, snagged in literary menopause and sticky with hot flushes. And he is nice to his mother. And patient with his students. And always touchingly, tenderly gallant with me, actually thinking of me as a fellow writer, and accepting me, great big-boned Judith Gill, as charming, a really quite attractive woman. And what else? Oh, yes. He has a passionate and pitiable desire to be loved, to be celebrated with expletives and nicknames, to be in the club. And then, an alternative compulsion to draw back, to be insular and exclusive and private. Psychologically he's a mess. I suppose he was driven to theft." (p.113)
Carol Shields has quite a distinctive style, very readable, with thoughtful and deftly drawn characters who drive the events of the book in a convincing way. Judith's slight disdain for her husband's narrow literary interests, she seems to find him rather dull, is turned on its head when his novel interpretation of Paradise Lost is an unexpected success, and it draws the story neatly to a satisfying conclusion, loose ends are neatly tied and life goes on. As I said at the beginning, it is a small story, a snapshot of a moment in this family's life, unpretentious but beautifully written as always.