June 15, 2012

Unless by Carol Shields

This is an uneven novel that nevertheless had great power for me. It's the story of an oldest daughter who suddenly and mysteriously leaves her loving family to sit silently begging on a street corner in a nearby city. The story is told in the first person by the mother, who narrates the unspeakable grief of losing a child in any way.

I call the novel uneven because Shields, who won the Pulitzer Prize among many other prizes for The Stone Diaries, takes the liberty of some philosophical rabbit trails that left me skipping parts at times. Nevertheless, her characters come alive, the plot kept me reading and the theme is a strong one. Her belief is that her daughter checked out because it had somehow come to her that our society leaves women powerless.

The most poignant parts of the book (besides the descriptions of how the other two daughters respond) are the letters the mother writes to various authors and public figures who feature only men (or maybe one women - how did she get in there?) in their work or projects. The letters are scathing, in a hilarious and gently Canadian kind of way, but the humour doesn't detract from the deadly serious nature of their message.

Besides short stories, plays and poems, Shields wrote ten novels. The only one (besides Unless of course) that I remember reading is Larry's Party, which I moderately enjoyed. Based on this novel, I'll revisit The Stone Diaries and try a few others on the list.

June 12, 2012

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

I really enjoyed this latest book by Miriam Toews. I did myself the favour of buying it (in paperback) because it's a very pretty book, and I'm not sorry I have it. Miriam (I guess I call her by her first name because Marj did) is entertaining as always. Once again she has an off-the-wall heroine, this time a young Mennonite woman whose family moved from Manitoba to Mexico when she was about 12. As a result, she speaks Low German, English and Spanish, and gets herself a job as a translator on a movie that is being shot near her rural home.

The complicating factor is her father, an abusive, violent, hardline conservative who tries to control her life and with whom she shares a bitter secret. Her younger sister Aggie is the other very complex and very funny character. As with The Flying Troutmans, this is a hardscrabble, rough and raw group of characters that figures out a way to make things work.

What will keep you reading is Toews's metaphors, wry humor and unexpected take on almost everything. In one scene Aggie has found a stash of Irma's baby clothes and is holding the tiny garments up to her one by one while Irma is milking cows. One expects sentiment, but instead Aggie says, "Wow, this is ugly," of one little item, and Irma responds, "You wore it too."

The other most intriguing thing is learning to know Irma. Like the heroine of A Complicated Kindness, Irma is wise beyond her years, but unlike Nomi, Irma has been really poorly educated and because of her terrible upbringing, lacks all confidence. Watching her grab her life and run with it is just plain fascinating.

I think Miriam Toews has done it again. Irma Voth may not win the Giller but it is beautifully crafted and I'll be happy to lend it to whoever would like to read it.

June 6, 2012

Tuesday Night and my Words are all Gone

A defeated silence hangs over
 our dinner, our walk, our going to bed.
I see that my words
have consumed me, storm-tossed,
And in a half-eaten way,
they have sustained me too,
Given me hope and goals.

Giving up the struggle
has left me hanging like a limp sail.
Was there only the one wind
driving me along?

While I stand still the days fly by
May into June, yet even they
are hardly more than words
that also end.