Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Unless by Carol Shields

This is my third book for the Canadian Book Challenge and was recommended by John after he read my review of The Stone Diaries. This was not originally on my list for the 2nds Challenge, but it does qualify since I read The Stone Diaries first. So I'm going to go ahead and count it as book number two in that challenge as well.

This is set outside of Toronto and is a snippet of the life of Reta Winters, an author, translator, and mother. In the story, Reta is writing her second novel during a period in her life when her eldest daughter, Norah, has taken to living on the streets of Toronto and panhandling at the same intersection on a daily basis. The story is partly about how Reta copes with this, how her family survives, but also how it affects her outlook on life and the role of women.

Strengths of Unless: This is a very different novel than The Stone Diaries. This one is told consistently in Reta's voice and, more importantly, with her temperament and perspective. Norah's predicament is moving and Shields is able to render Reta's emotions without being maudlin. She is actually a quite complex and thoughtful character. I especially liked the section of the book that dealt with the word "unless" - it was philosophical but completely in keeping with Reta's character and her ponderings throughout the novel. I also liked that Shields, through Reta, addressed the roles women play in life and how that is not always reflected in discussions of art, literature, or power. The ending was very satisfying as well. The cause of Norah's trauma made perfect sense given the way her character was created and given the message of the book. It worked for me on many levels.

Weaknesses of Unless:
I really liked this one. My only complaint was that the husband's character was a bit weakly drawn. The story was told from Reta's point of view but I wasn't always sure what she saw in him. He was a bit too absent in the story. I did realize, as I was reading, that this was probably a deliberate choice by Shields to keep the focus on the women in the story.

Overall, this is a very reading experience from The Stone Diaries, but one I equally enjoyed. Thanks for John for the suggestion. I'd love to hear opinions from anyone who has read this one or others by Carol Shields.


John Mutford said...

Glad to recommend it. I agree the husband could have been developed more, but I think to be fair to him he'd need his own book. Though affected by the same event, I think everyone's story could be very different. Could make an interesting sequel if someone were to take it on.

Chris said...

I read this one this year too. It was definitely different.