Thursday, 7 August 2003

Carol Shields: Unless (2002)

Edition: Fourth Estate, 2002
Review number: 1177

I have started several of last year's Booker Prize short-listed novels, but this is the first which I have felt a desire to read more than the first few pages. (I have not yet attempted Yaan Martel's Life of Pi, the winner.) The ones I put aside seemed no more than pale imitations of other writers, notably V.S. Naipaul, while Unless was able to speak to me with a voice of its own almost immediately. This is precisely why I was looking out for the half dozen short listed novels, in the hope of finding something new to enjoy. I read Unless and wrote this review before hearing of Shields' death; it made me feel that I had discovered her only just in time.

Every parent knows that eventually their child will leave them for a life of their own. For Reta Winters, middle aged author and narrator of Unless, the departure of her eldest daughter Norah has been more sudden, unusual and traumatic than most. For Norah has dropped out of life almost entirely, leaving her university course and boyfriend as well as her family to spend her days sitting on a street corner with a sign on her lap bearing the single word "GOODNESS". She won't talk to her family about her reasons for doing this, so they are left to speculate about what has gone wrong (something which comes fairly easily to the rather self-absorbed Reta) and what, if anything, can be done.

Unless is set in Toronto, something which (as Reta at one point remarks) is no longer expected to limit the market for a novel, and I was occasionally reminded of another first person narrative set in the city, Margaret Atwood's Catseye. Though both also share a feminist outlook (for some time Reta is convinced that Norah's withdrawal from the world is caused by a realisation that as a woman she won't ever get as good a deal from the world as an otherwise similar man.) Nevertheless is not as hard-edged as Atwood's writing, though it does have something of a similar air (possibly a consequence of the location and feminist sympathy already mentioned). Something which is different is that Atwood's style has the intention of convincing the reader of the sincerity of the narrator, while Sheilds makes you think that Reta manages to manifest contradictory emotions, as serene and self-observing prose proclaims violent distress and overwhelming concern for another. Nobody, of course, is completely consistent, and the contrast is obviously partly a coping strategy and partly due to guilt over her role in Norah's withdrawal, whatever that might be.

Unless has one feature which is extremely unusual. The headings of the chapters, like the novel's overall title, are single words, all prepositions and conjunctions rather than the nouns and verbs which would usually fill such a role. For me, this has the effect of giving the narrative a wistful note, though I'm not at all sure why this is. The novel generally feels similar to one of my other favourites of recent years, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. Unless is magical to read - and makes me intrigued as to what The Life of Pi must have in order to have persuaded the Booker judges to choose it rather than this novel as the winner.

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