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.


  1. When I went to the library to get this book on your recommendation, I read the first few lines and recognized that I had read it and quite liked it. But I can't comment any further because any further thoughts or observations about the book are long since gone out of this old brain!! Maybe that's not a bad thing, I can start rereading all the books I liked instead of thinking I should be finding new ones!

  2. Haha - that's exactly what I've been thinking. And really, why not re-read a book you enjoyed? I read all the time about people who re-read books many times. I think it's always killed me how many books there are in the world and I've thought I just can't afford to read the same one twice when there are so many waiting to be read!