Sunday, July 26, 2009

the last book I read

Unless by Carol Shields.

Reta Winters is a writer, principally of short stories and translations (mainly of the French-language works of her friend and mentor Danielle Westerman), but has recently branched out into novel-writing. Reta lives near Toronto with her partner and two of their three daughters - there is a third daughter, Norah, but she has had a psychological crisis of an unspecified nature and now sits on a street corner with a begging bowl and a cardboard sign round her neck bearing the single word GOODNESS.

Needless to say this odd situation has an impact on the family's life: they visit Norah on her street corner periodically to make sure she's still alive and well, though she doesn't offer much in the way of response. Reta has had a bit of an awakening of feminist consciousness (partly inspired by Danielle Westerman, who seems like a feisty old bird) and now writes increasingly eccentric letters to various people complaining about perceived sexist slights, though like Saul Bellow's Herzog she never actually sends any of them. Reta also chafes at the perception of her novel (successful though it was) as "light", "domestic fiction", that sort of thing, and at her new editor's suggestions for beefing the next one up a bit by making a male character the principal protagonist.

Meanwhile Norah continues to sit on her street corner (the intersection of Bathurst St. and Bloor St., apparently), until one day the family cruise by on one of their regular trips and find her not there. Much frantic ringing around later they find that she has succumbed to pneumonia and is being treated in a local hospital. It turns out Norah has been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing at close range a Muslim woman committing suicide by setting herself on fire (and sustaining burns trying to beat out the flames). The book ends with Norah back home making a slow recovery from her ordeal, Reta completing her second novel (without editorial meddling) and a general air of all's well that ends well.

No prizes for spotting that Reta's struggle to be taken seriously and not pigeonholed as a "woman writing for women" is probably semi-autobiographical: Shields has Reta fretting about happy endings, whether she should shoehorn in a bit more sex and violence, and what Danielle Westerman would have done in her position. Nothing wrong with happy endings per se, of course, although Norah's rescue from her catatonic state seemed a bit cosy and convenient. Shields does at least make it clear that it's PTSD she was suffering from rather than something more intractable like schizophrenia. I was reminded of a couple of other books that deal with similar subjects: Nick Hornby's How To Be Good which I thought (along with quite a few of the Amazon reviewers) wasn't up to much, and Kingsley Amis' Stanley And The Women which along with being one of his most ragingly misanthropic (and shamefully funny) books portrays schizophrenia in what appears to me to be quite a sensible and accurate manner, though of course I am not a doctor, as you know.

Anyway, I enjoyed Unless without being completely bowled over by it, mainly because the "domestic" stuff (reflections on family life and writing) and the "darker" stuff (the Norah situation) didn't seem to mesh together totally convincingly - I have to concede that the darker stuff was probably sincerely meant, though, as Shields wrote the novel (her last) while already terminally ill with the cancer that eventually killed her in July 2003. I would say, however, that if you absolutely must have one and only one North American female writer of meticulously observed "domestic fiction" that's actually quite deep and clever in an undemonstrative sort of way, the lady you probably want is Anne Tyler.

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