Although Carol Shields’ novel Unless has a tragic background, it doesn’t focus on a traditional story. Instead, we meet Reta Winters, whose 19 year-old daughter has chosen to sit on a busy corner in Toronto wearing a sign that reads only, “Goodness.” Reta does not take dramatic action to retrieve her daughter. She does not yell or pull her hair. Instead, she thinks and she writes.
This kind of passive first-person storytelling will not work for all readers, but I loved Reta from page one.
Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.
I immediately understood the way she thinks, the way she views the fragile nature of happiness and the manner in which she tries to understand her own family crisis. All of this occurs while the world keeps spinning. Her two other daughters still need care. She still meets friends for coffee. She still has sex with her husband. What should she do with life once her taken-for-granted happiness had been smashed?
Shields enfolded me in the language of Reta’s thoughts. She did it so completely that I wanted to reach out and hug her. I want Reta for my friend. I want to hear more about how we continue to live with tragedy.
We had failed in our effort to live a happy life. Never mind our careful arrangements, we were about to be defeated. This despite the sweet burnt-tomato smell of lasagna rising from the oven.
I recently read an interview (http://www.shelf-awareness.com/readers-issue.html?issue=85#m1689) with Jessica Maria Tuccelli, whose first novel is about to be published. She remarked , “I enjoy writers whose love of language is boldly apparent.” Carol Shields was just that kind of writer. She used language to its best advantage and I was thrilled to live in that world for a few days.
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 — that’s the little subjective mineral you carry along in your pocket crease. It’s always there, or else not there.
I was very sorry to learn Carol Shields died shortly after Unless was published. I have not yet read her Pulitzer Prize winning book Stone Diaries, but I will.