A habit that I’ve picked up from my mother is that I start conversations with absolutely anyone and everyone, especially when there’s a book involved. If I see someone reading – particularly if it’s a book I know and love – I usually can’t help but go over and ask their thoughts, and my friends are always amazed at how many people I meet in my local bookshop, Gertrude & Alice.
I recently met two American women one lunch time and swiftly started talking about our favourite books when Bobbi recommended I read Unless by Carol Shields. When I later discovered it was on the list of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, I soon after bought a copy, and read it during a short mid-week getaway to Byron Bay.
Described by Joanne Harris – one of my all-time favourite authors – as, ‘A wonderful, powerful book, written in a style which combines simplicity and elegance. Deeply moving.’ I was excited to begin a book by an author about whom I knew almost nothing. A subtle, simmering and slow-paced story, Unless was shortlisted for the 2002 Booker Prize and each chapter in the book, and indeed the title, takes its name from an ‘odd piece of language’ as referenced within the book.
The main protagonist is Reta Winters, a happy, middle-aged novelist and translator, a wife and mother of three children, who discovers that her 19-year-old daughter has dropped out of university and is begging on the streets of Toronto holding a sign that reads “Goodness.” and what follows is a quiet but poignant read rich with carefully crafted prose and an unsettling narrative. While on the surface not much happens, Shields drives the reader forward through her exploration of the plight and powerlessness of her central character.
The book is, at times, largely about the inner life of a writer, and the practice and the process of writing a novel. Shields paints the nature of a writer’s relationship with a translator and the role of the editor within the task of writing with wit and drollery. The nature of goodness and what this means is also explored, and some of the chapters are letters which Reta has written but not sent, usually feminist critiques of articles she has read.
The last book Shileds wrote before she succumbed to cancer, it’s a wonderful example of how slow and simple books can often be the most affecting.
For all of her life, 44 year old Reta Winters has enjoyed the useful monotony of happiness: a loving family, good friends, growing success as a writer of light ‘summertime’ fiction. But this placid existence is cracked wide open when her beloved eldest daughter, Norah, drops out to sit on a gritty street corner, silent but for the sign around her neck that reads ‘GOODNESS.’ Reta’s search for what drove her daughter to such a desperate statement turns into an unflinching and surprisingly funny meditation on where we find meaning and hope.
The final book from Pulitzer Prize-winner Carol Shields, Unless, is a harrowing but ultimately consoling story of one family’s anguish and healing, proving Shields’s mastery of extraordinary fictions about ordinary life.
About Carol Shields
Carol Shields was born in Chicago and lived in Canada for most of her life. She is the author of three short story collections and eight novels, including the Pulitzer Prize — winning The Stone Diaries and Larry’s Party, winner of the Orange Prize.
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