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Unless: A Novel By Carol Shields

Jacket: Hardcover
Pages: 336 pages
Publisher: Fourth Estate (April 29, 2003)
Genre: Literary
ISBN: 0007154615

Comments about the author: Shields is the author of several novels and short-story collections, including The Orange Fish, Swann, Various Miracles, Happenstance, and The Republic of Love. Her books have won a Canada Council Major Award, two National Magazine Awards, the Canadian Author's Award, and a CBC short story award. The Stone Diaries was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the 1993 Booker Prize, and won Canada's Governor General Award. It was also named one of the best books of the year by Publishers Weekly and a "Notable Book" by The New York Times Book Review.

Review: “Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head," observes Reta Winters, the narrator of Carol Shields' "Unless". "It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.”

Nominated for the 2002 Booker Prize, "Unless" plunges us into the mundanity of Reta Winters' life. Reta lives an ordinary life with her husband and her three daughters, Natalie, Christie and Norah, in Orangetown, Ontario. She is a successful writer, having published a bestseller titled "My Thyme is Up" and several translations of feminist writer Danielle Westerman's books. But the quiet in her life is shattered when her eldest daughter Norah decides, inexplicably, to sit at a street corner in Toronto with a placard marked "Goodness".

What prompted Norah to do such a thing? What goodness did she seek? Norah's sudden decision prompts Reta to consider why Norah was compelled to behave the way she did.

The conclusion Reta arrives at is that women in general have not found valued roles in a male-dominated world. Women are marginalized by the patriarchal system that is entrenched even in modern Western societies. As Danielle Westerman, the feminist voice in the novel, put it, “Norah s’était tout simplement laissée aller vers ce refuge traditionnel des femmes qui n’ont aucun pouvoir. Elle avait ainsi fait sienne cette totale impuissance, cette passivité absolue. Ne faisant rien, elle avait revendiqué tout.” (“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. In doing nothing, she has claimed everything.”)

Has she indeed? Reta is uncertain. But it doesn't matter. Readers will find themselves swept forward by the strength of the internal monologue, as they get into Reta's head and listen to her think aloud.

Shields writes with a staggering amount of self-consciousness, but her gambit pays off. Richly textured, "Unless" is true to life, bringing in an entire pantheon of friends, acquaintances and miscellaneous characters. In that sense, readers will find the book a truly immersive literary experience.

Unfortunately, "Unless" needs a stronger plot to carry the story forward. Towards the end, one is easily overwhelmed by the level of detail presented in the novel, as well as the ponderous depth of Reta's introspection on women's issues.

But isn't life like that sometimes? We get so easily bogged down by the meaningless minutiae surrounding us, and only stop to think about the big issues when something happens to us that throws us off balance. In "Unless", Carol Shields carefully guides us on our pilgrimage to find the true value of life, and continually reminds us of life's fragility.

— Reviewed by: Wenkai Tay


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