At one point in Carol Shields’ new novel, the narrator, Reta Winters, contemplates a recurring dream in which she stands in her kitchen, charged with preparing a meal for guests, and discovers only “a single egg, or maybe a tomato,” in the refrigerator. She doesn’t consider the dream particularly symbolic. “For more than twenty years I’ve been responsible for producing three meals a day for the several individuals I live with. I may not be conscious of this obligation, but surely I must always, at some level, be calculating and apportioning the amount of food in the house and the number of bodies to be fed.”
There are some readers who simply cannot muster any interest in a novel in which the main character’s mind can be preoccupied with such matters. Those readers may want to leave right now: The Chuck Palahniuk books are on the second shelf on your left as you go out. And have fun.
That’s better. Reta Winter is a translator, the author of a successful “light” novel, the wife of a doctor in a small Canadian town near Toronto and the mother of three teenage girls. After the unspooling, patchwork fashion of most Carol Shields novels (though not perhaps as eccentrically as her Pulitzer-winning “The Stone Diaries”), “Unless” describes Reta’s largely happy life and the aftermath of what appears to be the sole tragedy to ever seriously ruffle its surface. Her eldest daughter, Norah, living on her own for the first time, suddenly abandons her life as a college student to take up a spot on a Toronto street corner, where she sits all day long holding a begging bowl and a sign with the word “goodness” printed on it. Norah refuses to speak to or even acknowledge her family or friends.
Each of the book’s chapters, like the novel itself, is titled with the sort of words or phrases that Reta calls “little chips of grammar (mostly adverbs or prepositions) that are hard to define, since they are abstractions of location or relative position, words like therefore, else, other, also, thereof, theretofore, instead, otherwise, despite, already and not yet.” Yet without these “odd pieces of language” to “cement” together the more colorful, momentous nouns and verbs, we can’t “form a coherent narrative.”
The parallel between such words and the women Shields likes to write about, the ordinary women who hold together families or run the public library or manage the homeless shelter where Norah spends her life, is obvious, but not everything about “Unless” is equally so. Reta may be militantly cheerful — “I’m not interested in sadness,” she says, disapproving of Anna Karenina’s absorption in her own moods, but she’s not stupidly so, especially as a writer. “If I prayed,” she explains when she accepts a literary award dedicated to “accessible” books, “I would ask every day to be spared the shame of dumb sunniness.”
Shields’ fiction has always had this sort of stealth spikiness, like soft fish that, when bitten into, turns up a web of bone, or like that sweet middle-aged lady next door when you were growing up, who turns out to have been watching you more shrewdly and understanding you more completely than you ever suspected. Norah’s defection from the world sets Reta teetering and flailing, unable to reassemble her comfortable vision of her life. She begins to write letters to famous novelists, journalists, critics, even to a dead man, complaining about the way they have, when summoning up their lists of great writers, neglected to mention any women.
Eventually, Reta comes to agree with the formidable French intellectual whose multivolume memoir she has spent many years translating: “Norah has simply succumbed to the traditional refuge of women without power: she has accepted in its stead complete powerlessness, total passivity, a kind of impotent piety.” Reta’s letters to strangers get angrier; she accuses them of helping to form a world her daughter can only reject, although she never loses a wry self-awareness about how badly she’s coming across. “Probably you will dismiss this as a crank letter from one of those women who go around begging to be offended,” she writes. (She never mails the letters, by the way.)
In the meantime, Reta’s life goes on, sometimes absurdly so. “My daughter is living like a vagabond on the streets of Toronto, but even so I had to have four yards of screened bark mulch delivered to the house this morning, $141.91, including haulage,” begins one chapter, an acute summation of the way existence indiscriminately combines the tragic and the mundane. Reta’s longtime editor dies; a preposterous new one is assigned to her second novel, a sequel, but she muddles along nevertheless, concocting the further romantic adventures for her characters.
And so, also, the crisis with Norah moves toward a resolution. Although Reta’s “loss” — ambiguous and provisional as it is — never feels entirely catastrophic, that turns out to be beside the point. When we finally learn why Norah became a beggar, the truth is not at all what her mother had thought. By then, though, Reta has already asked “How can [Norah] go on living her life knowing what she knows, that women are excluded from greatness, and most of the bloody time they choose to be excluded?” and the rage she allowed herself to feel only on behalf of her daughter can’t be tidily stowed away again.
Many readers of “Unless” will be aware that since Shields has advanced breast cancer this is likely to be her last book, and to them Norah’s interlude on the streets may seem a rather weak premise for the grief Reta experiences. It has to stand as an emblem for a greater loss that can only haunt the book; if that were made explicit it would swamp everything and ruin the lightness Shields clearly prizes in her fiction. “Unless” is this writer’s way of rooting around in her life and her life’s work, querying, however obliquely, the choices she made and the culture that shaped them, contemplating a dynamic that isn’t as simple as brute oppression, but remains achingly unfair: What does it mean to be “great”? Anything at all? Perhaps not, and perhaps something worth making a fuss about at the very least. Yet conventional greatness was never, for Shields, the point, and in this book, as in all the rest, she has remained true to herself.