Unless is the worry word of the English language. It flies like a moth around the ear, you hardly hear it, and yet everything depends on its breathy presence.
I love Carol Shields’ writing. This is only my second novel by Shields, but I have also read about 1/3 of her short story collection (with plans to read the rest). The first was the Pulitzer-winning The Stone Diaries, which I also loved. Something about Shields’ writing just speaks to me. I can’t really pinpoint it exactly — I just know that I would very much like to read all of her works at some point.Shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, Unless is a story about a mother’s grief and pain over her daughter, who is not dead, or on drugs, but IS, by choice, a street beggar. Norah just suddenly dropped out of college and is now on the streets. Reta, the mother, is an author and a naturally happy person. Up until this point she hasn’t really had any difficulty in her life. In fact, during an author interview:The radio host in Baltimore asked me — he must have been desperate — what was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. That stopped me short. I couldn’t think of the worst thing. I told him that whatever it was, it hadn’t happened yet. I knew, though, at that moment, what the nature of the “worst thing” would be, that it would be socketed somehow into the lives of my children.
Though Reta has been with her children’s father Tom since they met, they have never married. Their relationship is a good one, but Reta has strong feelings about feminism and the role of women in society. She suspects that perhaps part of Norah’s problem lies in this area. Reta writes (but never sends) letters to editors and the like when she perceives an injustice has been done to women. An example:This will explain my despondency, and why I am burbling out my feelings to you. I am a forty-four-year old woman who was under the impression that society was moving forward and who carries the memory of a belief in wholeness. Now, suddenly, I see it from the point of view of my nineteen-year-old daughter. We are all trying to figure out what’s wrong with Norah. She won’t work at a regular job. She’s dropped out of university, given up her scholarship. She sits on a curbside and begs. Once a lover of books, she has resigned from the act of reading, and believes she is doing this in the name of goodness. She has no interest in cults, not in cultish beliefs or in that particular patronizing cultish nature of belonging. She’s too busy with her project of self-extinction. It’s happening very slowly and with much grief, but I’m finally beginning to understand the situation. My daughter Christine grinds her teeth at night, which is a sign of stress. Another daughter, Natalie, chews her nails. Women are forced into the position of complaining and then needing comfort. What Norah wants is to belong to the whole world or at least to have, just for a moment, the taste of the whole world in her mouth. But she can’t. So she won’t.
Another strong passage:Because Tom is a man, because I love him dearly, I haven’t told him what I believe: that the world is split in two, between those who are handed power at birth, at gestation, encoded with a seemingly random chromosome determinate that says yes for ever and ever, and those like Norah, like Danielle Westerman, like my mother, like my mother-in-law, like me, like all of us who fall into the uncoded female otherness in which the power to assert ourselves and claim our lives has been displaced by a compulsion to shut down our bodies and seal our mouths and be as nothing against the fireworks and streaking stars and blinding light of the Big Bang. That’s the problem.
I could put a hundred quotes from the book in this review; it is a book I will definitely be keeping. If you haven’t read any of Carol Shields yet, I strongly recommend her as an author.more