Unless / Carol Shields (2002)

I have been a poor reader lately, finding it hard to finish anything, yet Carol Shields’ final novel, Unless, hooked me.  It is the story of a woman in her forties, the writer of ‘light’ fiction and translations, Reta, whose daughter, Norah, suddenly leaves home and sits on the same street each day begging for money. The situation is breaking Reta’s heart even as life insists on going on and she attempts to write the sequel to her first novel.

It is deceptively ‘domestic’, almost ‘light fiction’, with the trappings of a middle-aged woman with a circle of good friends trying to hold her family together, and a (sort of) conventional ending. Yet as a reader I sensed more and more that Shields was playing sophisticated games  with me.

It is  a passionately yet somehow gently feminist novel (perhaps I say gently because of its subtlety). The chapters are interspersed with letters to various public figures or critics or writer who have ignored or silenced women in their articles or books. The whole novel seems to be a protest about the dismissal of  domestic/ family concerns as ‘light’ women’s fiction. Tellingly, an editor is trying to rewrite Reta’s new novel, to turn it into a man’s quest for greatness, rather than a woman’s quest for goodness. Perhaps Shields’ response is to silence Reta’s husband, Tom, who is never more than a background character. I might be tempted to call his lack of involvement a weakness, if I wasn’t so suspicious it was  a ploy of Shields’ that I was falling into.

It is an uneasy novel. Every criticism I am tempted to make of it could be read as a deliberate protest against my assumptions. I felt that it moved too slowly, with too little happening and too long spent thinking about the situation; yet maybe I’m trying to ‘edit’ Shields’ novel just like the nasty editor is trying to edit Reta’s.

I was hooked by its pearls of insight into life and its elegant enigmas. I was sad all the way through, knowing that Shields died of breast cancer soon after it was published.