#238 Unless

I knew that The Cider House Rules would be a difficult book to follow and so must have had high hopes for Carol Shield’s Unless when I chose it as the second book for two weeks spent away (maybe also because happily, it adheres to my desired number of pages for any kind of commute), and while I can’t say I found it unpleasant I might go as far as to say it was slightly boring.
Perhaps it was the main character and narrator: Reta Winters is a female novelist and translator who, until a few months before the beginning of Unless, was living a perfectly happy, comfortable and content “normal” life in a large house outside Ontario with her husband and three daughters. Her style of narration is not fantastical, no one event particularly excites her and “she” writes with a calmness and coolness that, halfway through the book, I began to wonder whether my own writing voice would share (if I were ever to write a novel – enough reason not to bother, I think). The event that disturbs her tranquil life is the momentary disappearance in April of Norah, the eldest daughter, who reappeared a few days later sat on the street corner of Toronto with a cardboard sign that reads “Goodness” for no discernable reason that any of the characters can fathom. Reta spends the novel understandably worried about said daughter, observing the effects of this behaviour on her family around her, meeting with esteemed author Danielle Westman (whose works she translates) and a group of friends, composing a second novel and generally reflecting on her life and the life of those around her. Her musings are occasionally interrupted by her drafting letters, mostly to male lecturers or presenters or reviewers who, having compiled studies or lists of great novelist or works, have omitted any female authors from their midst (a valid point); these letters almost always meander back to her preoccupations with her daughters, and wanting to make the world a better place for them; as the novel goes on she begins to sign these letters of which variations of her own name, with aliases. I’m not sure whether this is meant to signify an attempt of escapism from Reta ? In all fairness, trying to continue as normal when her daughter’s choosing to sit on a street corner for a reason she won’t reveal must be inconceivably difficult and I don’t blame her from wanting to escape that, but a part of me also thought these erratic signoffs might be a deviation from the blandness her life in the story. As a character I think she is written very well; but for me there was a lack of stimulation throughout the book which resulting in my forcing myself to read it on the train: I highly suspect that, given the option between this and another once I got home, I would have neglected Unless.
That said I am glad I persevered – the last 40 pages of the book (which was not a taxing read – that is not meant as an insult) were worth it, if just to find out the reason for Norah’s behaviour – which, having finished it, now seems incredibly obvious. I think I may have expected more from this book because it is one of the few 21st century novels on the 1001 books list: and because there are so few of them (mainly because my edition must have been published in at least 2008 if not a few years earlier) in comparison to the vast number from the previous century, I do expect them to be very good. I would be intrigued to see whether there are any more of Carol Shields’ books on the list and whether they were equally flat, but perhaps not for a while yet.


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