Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Unless by Carol Shields is quite good.

And I mean literally quite good, without any sarcasm or hyperbole intended. It's quiet and peaceful and pretty and enjoyable without being mindblowing or brilliant. There are many beautiful moments in it, and the language is really nice. I enjoyed it for its subtlety. In fact, it's so subtle that it's difficult to work out why it works as well as it does. Maybe I'll just let the text do the talking.
"I'm not interested, the way some people are, in being sad. I've had a look, and there's nothing down that road. I wouldn't reply, as Anna Karenina does when asked what she's thinking about: "Always about my happiness and my unhappiness." The nakedness of that line of thought leads to a void. No, Ms. Winters of Orangetown much prefers the more calculated protocols of dodging sadness with deliberate manoeuvres. She has an instinct for missing the call of grief. Scouring the separate degrees of innerness makes her shy. A reviewer... with being "good" at happy moments but inept at the lower end of the keyboard. Well, now! What about the ripping sound behind my eyes, the starchy tearing of fabic, end to end; what about the need I have to curl up my knees when I sleep? Whimpering."
I picked this paragraph pretty much at random from among the pages I marked as having standout passages, and it's an excellent example of Shields' portrayal of the protagonist (Reta Winters) and her struggle to cope with her daughter Norah's withdrawal from society. One day, for no reason that her family can understand, Norah leaves her steady boyfriend and seemingly happy life as a student at the University of Toronto to take up a position on the footpath, begging for alms and wearing a cardboard sign with the word "goodness" written on it around her neck. Reta Winters is a writer of 'light' fiction and a translator; Unless charts the parallel journeys of the protagonist (Reta) and of the protagonist of Reta's book (Alicia?) until both reach their respective conclusions. In the sort of trick that some might call silly, naff or cheap but that makes a linguophile like myself want to squee, Unless embodies the uncertainty and conditionality encoded of the sense and connotations of the word 'unless'.

Thanks to its subject matter, this book immediately reminded me of Phillip Roth's American Pastoral (both are about a daughter performing an act that is shocking and seems completely out of character and her family's attempts to deal with it), and I originally wanted to write a comparison of the two, but I'll admit that it's been too long since I read American Pastoral and that I also just can't be bothered. In brief, though: for all the similarity of the plots (?), the two are very different. American Pastoral is "raging and elegiac" in the wonderful words of the reviewer who is quoted on the cover of my edition - it is anger, a cry of despair and why?? that echoes in my head even now. Unless is totally different. It is quieter and more restful, but no less meaningful and potentially heart-wrenching. Read them both for an interesting comparison.

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