Review: Unless by Carol Shields

A life is full of isolated events, but these events, if they are to form a coherent narrative, require odd pieces of language to cement them together, little chips of grammar (mainly adverbs or prepositions) that are hard to define, since they are abstractions of location or relative position, words like therefore, else, other, also, thereof, theretofore, instead, otherwise, despite, already, and not yet.

In this, the opening of the final chapter of Unless, Carol Shields explains the structure of her novel, and the oblique nature of its chapter headings: Once, Wherein, Nevertheless, So… . She explains it too well, actually, for coherent narrative is the one thing that this book lacks, at least until the very end. Unless is a brilliantly written collection of fragments: family memories, observations on the art of writing, unsent letters to various male recipients chiding them for their chauvinism, and thoughts about a new novel that the protagonist is writing. But not really a story.

Reta Winters, mid-forties, living some miles from Toronto, mother of three teenage daughters, and blessed with a loving partner, has achieved some considerable renown as the translator of the French poet and Holocaust survivor Danielle Westerman. Striking out on her own, she has published a light romance entitled “My Thyme is Up,” and her publishers have contracted a sequel, “Thyme in Bloom.” But she is mired in bewilderment and grief. Her eldest daughter, Norah, has dropped out of college, left her boyfriend, and spends her days on a street corner in Toronto with a begging bowl and a hand-lettered sign saying GOODNESS. She will not respond to her siblings or parents, who are at a loss to understand the cause of her virtual self-immolation. Reta, a quiet but determined feminist, believes it is a reaction to the condition of being deprived of her voice as a woman, hence those unsent letters. But she does not know, and neither her attempts to analyze the problem, or to channel it into her fiction, or to carry on as normally as possible seem to bring any clarity. The ending, when it comes, seems almost simplistic by comparison with the bafflement that had reigned heretofore.

Much of the novel focuses on the nature of goodness. Reta wonders if her daughter’s homelessness is some kind of protest against female powerlessness. Perhaps her daughter has suddenly become aware that she must settle for goodness, since greatness still appears to be a realm reserved for men only.

Reta is a 44-year old Canadian writer and translator living in rural Orangetown, Ontario. Reta is a writer in the process of creating a novel, so there is this fascinating infinite digression about a woman writer writing a novel about another woman writer writing a novel. Winters has much to say about the process of writing that is both humorous and insightful, but mostly she rants brilliantly about the marginalization of female authors.

Reta is a charming, social, busy woman with many friends and responsibilities. She is an intellectual, a feminist, and a social activist. She and her common-law husband, Tom, have three daughters. Until her eldest daughter suddenly takes up living as a homeless person on the streets of Toronto, Reta has been living a life of extraordinary familial happiness. As the book opens, Reta’s world is shattered by the loss of her daughter to the streets of Toronto. Her heart is broken — she is grieving, and desperate to understand her daughter’s behavior. The novel takes place over the course of a year as Reta copes with her loss and ultimately comes to understand the motivation behind her daughter’s actions.

The novel is chock full of feminist rage and humor. The homeless daughter plot seems to hold the piece together, but it is insignificant against the weight of the whole. In my estimation, the whole hangs together mainly through the irresistible wellspring of interior musings from Reta’s mind. What kept me reading on was the desire to find out as much as I could about this very real, and most intriguing protagonist.

This book, if reworked, can be overflowing with life — a work brimming with ambiguity and nuance. However, the memoirs of a fictional character do not automatically become a novel just because the writer is not the author. A collection of essays, plot-ideas, and letters do not coalesce into novel form just because a fictional event has caused their fragmentation in the first place. Individual sections of this book are magnificent, but they need more than prepositions to hold them together; they demand conjunctions.

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