by Carol Shields

Published by Random House Canada

231 pages, 2002

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Bold Creative Risks

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


It surprises me how often the distilled essence of a novel's story is contained somewhere in the work itself: a ready-made synopsis, so to speak. In the case of Carol Shields' latest novel, Unless, it's right here in this single sentence: "An intelligent and beautiful girl from a loving family grows up in Orangetown, Ontario, her mother's a writer, her father's a doctor, and then she goes off the track."

This is the bare bones of Unless: a much-loved daughter suddenly and inexplicably going off the rails, leaving the security of her home to go begging on a street corner in Toronto with a hand-lettered sign around her neck that reads "Goodness." But it is so much more than that. It's also about a mother's anguish, her concerted attempts to make some kind of sense of it all, and the fracturing effect on a whole family as they try to cope, groping towards each other for comfort yet often retreating into numbing distraction.

But even this does not begin to encompass all that goes on in Unless. Let us not forget for a moment that this is Carol Shields, an artist with the ability to peel back delicate layers of meaning, exposing mystery after mystery right down to the unknowable core.

The novel brims with all that is human, the hell-bent good intentions, the brokenness, the stumbling imperfection, and the gallant struggle towards anything even resembling the light. Its narrator, Reta Winters, is a bundle of contradictions: a loving but somewhat controlling mother who is both angry and afraid, desperate to force some order into this chaos, yet sensitive enough to search deeply for underlying reasons. This woman cannot and will not rest until she has figured out why a bright girl like Norah, her whole future ahead of her, would renounce the world in a bizarre kind of passive penance.

Though Unless is in large part about Reta's barely tolerable psychic pain, it begins so mildly that we are hardly prepared for the novel's central crisis: "It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now." Where is the howl of anguish in that calm, well-ordered, almost prim statement? Ah, but the anguish is there; it's just that Reta has an abiding need to hold it at arm's length. How does she do this? With words, dear reader, words, those powerful weapons that both express and obscure the truth.

Unless is deeply grounded in the writing life, so much so that one of Reta's first tasks is to neatly and numerically list her accomplishments in the literary field. She has done quite a bit: translated the works of a distinguished French feminist named Danielle Westerman, written acclaimed short stories for presses with names like Pink Onion, even published a modest hit, a "light" novel called My Thyme Is Up, leading to the inevitable call for a sequel which she will call Thyme In Bloom.

If chanting all these accomplishments is supposed to act as an incantation against horror and despair, it doesn't work. Again and again Reta compulsively drives by the street corner where a mute, glazed-looking Norah hunches, collecting her alms from strangers: "It is like watching her through plate glass. All week I will draw expensively on this brief moment of voyeurism, at the same time trying to blot it out with images of Norah on her bicycle; Norah sitting at the kitchen table studying for exams; Norah reaching for her green raincoat; Norah trying on new school shoes; Norah sleeping, safe."

In fact, the tension between safety and risk (Reta's cozy, inviting home as counterpoint to the merciless danger of the street) forms one of the underlying bulwarks of Unless. This theme works its way deep into the story (not to mention Reta's psyche) like yeast through a loaf.

Ironies abound in Reta's narrative. Well-meaning friends who have no idea of Reta's inferno of impotent rage counsel her to count her many blessings. She has two other teenaged daughters, after all, both bright and delightful; and then there is her nice husband Tom, a perfectly respectable doctor with a little hobby. (Never mind that his study of trilobites can be completely obsessive; doesn't this just prove that Reta and Tom are a good match?)

But no, wait: all is not as it seems. Tom isn't really her husband. Though Reta was conventional enough to take his name (changing from Summers to Winters, as if forcing a weird sort of reversal on nature itself), she never did actually marry him. It's almost an embodiment of the paradox of her nature, her push-me-pull-you attitude towards freedom versus responsibility -- or should I say respectability?

There are other contradictions. Though she translates the works of an outspoken feminist, in so doing she chooses a respectable, yet subordinate role. She writes a clever, "safe" little novel that does modestly well and does not begin to touch on her volcanic rage; in fact, writing the sequel provides a timely distraction from all she is going through. (So much for "Write what you know.") And yet, alarmingly, she rages against the enduring social restrictions that relegate women to the realms of mere goodness (that word again), while shutting them out of greatness.

Not only that Reta firmly believes, or has convinced herself, that this repressive system has somehow cracked her daughter's sanity, causing her to give up on a full life and retreat into passivity. "There is a bounteous feast going on, with music and richness and arabesques of language, but she has not been invited. ... How can she go on living her life knowing what she knows, that women are excluded from greatness, and most of the bloody time they choose to be excluded?"

Though being in touch with herself is not Reta's strong suit, here she comes uncomfortably close to an awful truth. Norah did not have to look to the unfair world for her discouragement; all she had to do was look at her mother. Reta's central tragedy is not the loss of her daughter, but her inability or unwillingness to reach for true greatness by taking the kind of bold, uncomfortable risks real artists must take.

Complicated stuff, but because this is Carol Shields, there is never a false step or a wrong note. And Reta does have ample grounds for her complaints. She writes a series of letters that crackle with righteous anger to pompous male literary pundits who barely seem aware that the human race has two genders (though in true Reta fashion, she never mails them). She has encounters, some of them frankly hilarious, with self-important (male!) stuffed shirts who believe they have the inherent right to be arbiters of literature, all the while revealing their meanness with every gesture. In this scene, an interviewer winds up a discussion with her at a coffee shop:

His hand jumps, and for a moment I think he's going to turn the tape recorder on again. But no, he's reaching into his pocket and now he's releasing two coins onto the table. The tip. They lie there, moist from his hand. Two dimes.

But just when we're sure we know the novel's main thesis (women are oppressed by the patriarchy!), Shields cannily throws in a female character, Gwen Reidman, who is even more insufferably self-important than all those arrogant males Reta rages against. Worst of all, she doesn't even seem to see it. Gwen was in charge of Reta's old writers' group, but now she has taken to wearing turbans and calling herself Gwendolyn (and the connection to the poet Gwendolyn MacEwan is not coincidental). In a revealing scene, it comes out that Gwen has casually cannibalized one of Reta's more striking metaphors in her novel: "She'd used my whalebone metaphor; I couldn't help noticing and, in fact, felt flattered."

Flattered! Does this woman not even know when she is being stepped on? Apparently not. Reta's collusion in her own oppression (if that's what it is) is one of the more frustrating aspects of Unless. I will admit to sometimes wanting to shake her awake.

So: is this novel a meditation on what powerlessness can do to an entire gender (half the population of the world)? Do slaves come to love their own chains, after all? Ah, but Shields would never allow us to conclude anything this simplistic. She is light-years ahead of Reta in her perception and ends the novel with the sort of twist that reveals even more ambiguity and paradox.

The best novelists don't solve or resolve anything, but force us to sit with the contradictions. It isn't an easy or comfortable task, and Unless is far from a cozy read. Under the bright linoleum of Reta's kitchen is a trap door with a single word on it:

Unless is the worry word of the English language. It flies like a moth around the ear, you hardly hear it, and yet everything depends on its breathy presence. ... Unless you're lucky, unless you're healthy, fertile, unless you're loved and fed, unless you're clear about your sexual direction, unless you're offered what others are offered, you go down in the darkness, down to despair.

The truth is that any one of us can fall through that trap door (all it takes is one accident, one illness, one bereavement, one central loss), and in doing so be forced to find a way to survive. In these extremes of experience the best and the worst of us emerge in equal measure. This is what happens to Reta Winters. In revealing her so whole and unvarnished -- struggling, contradictory, angry, loving -- Shields has actually taken the kind of bold creative risk her literary alter ego can only dream about. | May 2002


Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She has written two novels, A Singing Tree and Better Than Life, and is at work on a third, Nola Mardling. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.