Unless, Carol Shields

Books sometimes come to you when you need them. I found Unless in a charity shop as I was wondering how seriously I could take myself as a writer. I read the synopsis. Interested. Turned to the first page and immediately knew this was a writer I could learn from. The story follows Reta, a middle-aged woman, who finds herself with a successful first book embarking on a second and wondering what kind of writer she is. She also wonders what kind of woman she is. Her eldest daughter Norah has dropped out of university and spends her time sitting on a street corner of their hometown. She wears a sign around her neck with the word ‘goodness’ scrawled across it. Norah lives the life of a homeless person, driven from the world by the belief, Reta conjectures, that her life ‘is doomed to miniaturism’. Reta knows what her daughter feels like. Reta suspects that as a writer, and perhaps also as a woman, she can have ‘goodness but not greatness’. The fact that she is also a woman writer concerned to write about women only reinforces her suspicions. Her feeling is illustrated perfectly by the reaction of her editor to an early draft of her second novel. He wants to make Reta’s ‘light comic’ story into something ‘significant and literary’. He proposes changing the novels’ central orbit from the female character to the male co-lead. Only then can the proposed transubstantiation take place. Reta doesn’t allow her story to get lost in translation. She sides with her daughter and chooses, for the time being at least, ‘goodness’ over ‘greatness’. the prose is open, direct and clever with an acuity and lightness of touch that manages to be both bold and subtle.  Shields has a great eye for detail. It is also a story about women living and women writing. As such, it forces me to ask questions about my self and my writing. Questions the answers to which, I expect to be working on for some time.

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