Friday, May 13, 2005

Unless - by Carol Shields

A Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 224 pages
# Publisher: Fourth Estate; 1st edition (April, 2002)
# ISBN: 0007141076
# $29.95

As a writer and a mother, it wasn't but a few words into this novel by Shields that I found myself holding my breath, holding it in compassion and wonder, in acknowledgement of the artistry witnessed, of the beauty of words used with such mastery. Shields writes about a writer, and she writes about a writer who is a mother. In so many ways, one is the other, the other is the same. The character in her acts of creation sends her own goodness into the world, and while her novels seem to take unpredictable paths in the world of publishing and then in the hands of her reading public, so does her daughter veer off her expected path in life to seemingly abandon it all and sit on the street as a homeless soul, sign hung around her neck: "Goodness."

What can drive a young woman to such despair? How can a mother survive her own despair in seeing it? Scenes unfold of a woman who ponders her own writing, a kind of novel inside a novel, and her dealings with a new editor who appears to have her best interests at heart, yet has one soon gritting teeth with just barely suppressed annoyance. A scene of lovemaking between husband and wife, a guilty pleasure and comfort when their child is out on the chill of the streets, is one of the most uniquely written I have ever come across in modern fiction. A topic so overwritten and cliched, Shields manages even this one as if it had been the first, and wholly hers to invent. A scene between mother-in-law and abandoned editor using his salesmanship ploys for public relations over the dinner table they find themselves sharing by chance is another jewel. The treasure keeps on surfacing page after page.

Shields writes with rare magnificence. Her story is an achingly simple but important one, as the best stories are, and she once again proves herself worthy of the Pulitzer she has won.