Saturday, February 2, 2008
Swann by Carol Shields
This is the third novel by Carol Shields that I've read for the Canadian Book Challenge. I really liked the other two: The Stone Diaries and Unless. This one is the story of four people who are united by a relationship with Mary Swann, an obscure, dead Canadian poet.
They are: Rose, the librarian in the small town where Swann lived and died; Sarah, the academic scholar who "discovers" Swann's book; Morton, Swann's biographer; and Frederic, the retired journalist and publisher who publishes Swann's only book. The book is divided among these four people and tells their stories as they prepare to attend the Swann Symposium. Shields also tries to weave a minor mystery plot throughout the four stories as items related to Swann keep showing up missing, or stolen, from each of the main characters.
STRENGTHS OF SWANN: Shields develops wonderful interesting characters. I especially liked Rose because Shields seemed to capture the essence of a small town woman with her variety of roles, yet showed her loneliness as well. Shields also did an excellent job of creating Mary Swann - a character we never meet because she has been killed by her husband before the story even takes place. There is a true sense of despair about her, even though we only meet her in reflections by Rose and Frederic. It is interesting to ponder how real these reflections are because Frederic also reveals some half-truths about the contents of Swann's book. Shields does play with the theme of what is art and who makes it throughout the novel.
WEAKNESSES OF SWANN: I did not like the last quarter of the book at all. Once the main characters are gathered at the Symposium, Shields tells the story via a movie script, complete with stage directions. I lost the flow of the characters and found the stage directions quite tiresome. It is also in this section that the mystery element moves forward. I found that I didn't care who was taking the Swann material. I also found all the sneaking around with flashlights and secret meetings tedious and not in keeping with the characters as they were presented.
Overall, I'd give this three stars. It was not my favorite Shields book by any means. If you haven't read her, don't start with this one. I'm not sorry I read it because the characters were engaging, but I did find myself skimming the last part of the book to get it finished. If you've read this one, I'd love to know if I missed something.