Unless: A Novel
I’m not interested, the way some people are, in being sad. I’ve had a look, and there’s nothing down that road. Well now! What about the ripping sound behind my eyes, the starchy tearing of fabric, end to end; what about the need I have to curl up my knees when I sleep?
For all of her life, 44 year old Reta Winters has enjoyed the useful monotony of happiness: a loving family, good friends, growing success as a writer of light ‘summertime’ fiction. But this placid existence is cracked wide open when her beloved eldest daughter, Norah, drops out to sit on a gritty street corner, silent but for the sign around her neck that reads ‘GOODNESS.’ Reta’s search for what drove her daughter to such a desperate statement turns into an unflinching and surprisingly funny meditation on where we find meaning and hope.
Warmth, passion and wisdom come together in Shields’ remarkably supple prose. Unless, a harrowing but ultimately consoling story of one family’s anguish and healing, proves her mastery of extraordinary fictions about ordinary life.
“A life is full of isolated events,” writes Carol Shields near the end of Unless, “but these events, if they are to form a coherent narrative, require odd pieces of language to link them together, little chips of grammar (mostly adverbs or prepositions) that are hard to define… words like therefore, else, other, also, thereof, therefore, instead, otherwise, despite, already, and not yet.” Shield’s explanation for her novel’s title lends meaning to this multilayered narrative in which a mother’s grief over a daughter’s break with the family revises her feminist outlook and pushes her craft as a writer in a new direction.
The oldest daughter of 44-year-old Reta Winters suddenly, inexplicably, drops out of college and ends up on a Toronto street corner panhandling, with a cardboard sign around her neck that reads “goodness.” The quiet comforts of Reta’s small-town life and the constancy of her feminist perspective sustain her hope that her daughter will snap out of this, whatever “this” is. Threaded into her family’s crisis is her ongoing internal elegy on the exclusion of women from the literary canon, which she transposes to mean her daughter’s exclusion from humanity. Reta wonders if her daughter has discovered, as she herself did years before, that the world is “an endless series of obstacles, an alignment of locked doors,” and has chosen to pursue the one thing that doesn’t require power or a voice: goodness.
In her own writing, Reta reaffirms her own sense of self, as well as her sense of humor. As her theoretical reflections on modern womanhood play counterpoint to her unwavering sense of creating a home and keeping her family together, Reta’s smarts and fears form a wonderfully coherent narrative—a life worth reading about. With Unless, the inaugural title in HarperCollins’s Fourth Estate imprint, Shields (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Stone Diaries) once again asserts her place in the canon. —Emily Russin