Essay, Research Paper
Up at the end of lonely streetUnlessCarol ShieldsFourth Estate ?16.99, pp224Carol Shields has always been a beguiling writer. She’d have you think her concerns were little affairs of the heart, the minor compromises women make with love, the ways in which her characters might hold on to contentment, or find hope and satisfaction in the everyday. But at the root of her fiction, beneath the often well-kempt surfaces of the lives she describes, there is as much unflinching emotional truth as in the books of any of her flashier, more overtly ‘ambitious’ – male – contemporaries.The narrator of Unless is just the kind of writer Shields sometimes finds herself mistaken for. Reta Winters (née Summers) has hopes to publish the sort of novels that can be read ‘while seated in an Ikea wicker chair with the sun falling on the pages as faintly and evenly as human breath’.She’s written one already, My Thyme is Up, and is at work on a sequel. In between times she works as a translator from the French of the memoirs of Dr Danielle Westerman, ‘poet, essayist, feminist survivor, holder of 27 honorary degrees’. A writer, she suggests, whose ‘manner was to take the reader by surprise. In the middle of a flattened rambling paragraph, deceived by warm stretches of reflection, you came upon hard cartilage’. Westerman, much loved, has never married; Winters has a husband, who is ‘losing his hair nicely’, and three teenage daughters.Shields seems to want to use the polarities of this pairing to get a compass on her own work. Written while she has been undergoing treatment for cancer, there is a sense in this novel of taking stock, of exploring what fiction, and explicitly fiction written by women, might be capable of.Shields’s last book was a critical appreciation of Jane Austen, and by using the interior life here of a writer writing about a writer, she develops, similarly, a prescriptive tone at times, inquiring into the nature of her own art: ‘This matters,’ Reta has to tell herself, and her creator, ‘the making of untenable worlds through the nib of a pen; it matters so much I can’t stop doing it’.There seems, too, a barely voiced concern about what will survive, about longevity: the latter half of the novel is punctuated with charmingly angry letters Reta constructs to male authors who routinely write women out of the canon, letters (perfect Shields this) which never get sent.The title of the book reflects this anxiety with what language might tell of an emotional life. The chapter headings are each the little ’subjunctive minerals you carry along in your pocket crease’, the words – ‘Despite’ and ‘Notwithstanding’ and ‘Yet’ – that make the syntax of an existence hang together.In contrast to Julian Barnes, who once wrote that ‘unless’ was the most menacing word in the English language, Shields has Reta suggest that it is the conjunction that might save you from your fate: ‘Unless you’re lucky, unless you’re healthy, fertile, unless you’re loved and fed, unless you are offered what others are offered, you go down in the darkness, down to despair…’That darkness, which had never seemed quite real to Reta, in her blossomy Toronto suburb, suddenly seems only a word or two away. ‘Happiness,’ she has come to realise, ‘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 on to a different sort of life.’The different sort of life in which Reta finds herself has been effected by her eldest daughter, Norah, 19, a gifted student, one of the lights of her life. For reasons unknown, Norah has moved out of her college flat to sit begging every day on the corner of a busy intersection in Toronto, with a sign saying ‘goodness’ around her neck. She will not speak, will not move, will not listen, dosses down every night in a hostel called The Promise Hotel.Reta, confronted by the absolute loneliness of Norah, of how a daughter could be blankly unknowable to her, finds all her own certainties cracked and hopeless; she’s a little girl again, and one who has ‘dropped the ball in the schoolyard, lost that curved clean shell she was carrying home from the beach’. On the back of the door of a public lavatory she watches herself writing, in perfect script, ‘My heart is broken’, there is a constant ripping sound behind her eyes ‘the starchy tearing of fabric, end to end,’ and a need to curl up her knees when she sleeps, whimpering.Part of her, the part that sympathises with the feminist sisterhood, and which imbibes the wisdom of Danielle Westerman, believes that Norah has simply fully understood ‘the big female secret of wanting and not getting’, she constructs workable fantasies of her daughter’s disempowerment, but she knows, too, that is not the whole story.Men are not much help. They invariably think big thoughts in Shields’s books, and don’t care to notice their lives falling apart. Reta believes that her husband, a doctor who has an interest in prehistory, ‘thinks about trilobites all the time’. An old friend, whose wife has just left him, comes round and explains the theory of relativity over supper.The relativities that interest Reta Winters – and the author – are mostly the minute currents of tension and release that flow within families, and among friends and lovers. The history that interests her is the intimate biography of her daughter, the secrets of a life that might have led her on to a street corner, in search of whatever. At one point Reta discusses the notion of trust, in particular the trust that might exist between a mother and child, with her little gang of ladies who lunch. When does doubt creep into that bond, one of the women wonders. ‘Immediately,’ Reta suggests, ‘One second after birth. I’m sure of it.’Shields is one of very few writers who could make a book about what it means to be alone in the world quite this charming. She can bring little chill shivers of existentialism to the kitchen table: ‘When [Norah] was a very small child, three or four,’ Reta recalls, ‘eating lunch, she heard an airplane go overhead and looked up at me and said, “The pilot doesn’t know I’m eating an egg.” ‘In between brilliant asides on, say, the dynamics of book interviews, conducted in cappuccino bars in Toronto by ‘chilly, stooped’ men ’slow to smile, pathetically in need of human attention, thinking [their] superior thoughts…’, she will bring you up short with all the world’s fears.You hear Iris Murdoch at the back of this book somewhere, or at least Shields has ingrained Murdoch’s faith in love, and pursues her stringent inquisition into hope. The result is as poised and wise a novel as any you will read this year.