Something to Read I – Carol Shields
For some reason I remembered, on waking, how during the first summer of the new millennium, we arrived on the banks of a wet Norwegian fjord and wondered for three days and nights if the weather would take a turn for the better, as it had in previous years, or if we were doomed to sit in a wooden cabin and listen to the falling rain for the best part of a month. And I remembered a couple of novels by the Canadian based author, Carol Shields.
The weather picked up and the sun came out and we swam in the sea every day. But between the bouts of Hedonism I picked up The Stone Diaries (Fourth Estate 1994) and Larry’s Party (QPD 1997) and after a few minutes I didn’t care what the weather was doing or where in the world we were.
The Stone Diaries is the story of Daisy Goodwill from her birth on a kitchen floor in Manitoba to her death in a Florida nursing home nearly ninety years later. There is no plot as such, but the novel is allowed to unfurl through the viewpoints of a variety of narrators. They may talk directly to us or we might ‘overhear’ their musings in the form of letters. They comment on this or that aspect of Daisy’s life and Daisy herself chips in from time to time, letting us know how she feels about motherhood or marriage or her extraordinary neighbours.
The Stone Diaries reminds us of the importance of the novel as a form, of its unique position in the cannon of our culture. But more than this, it reminds us of the unique importance of each human life. Carol Shields gives us a chaotic mish-mash of a life in a chaotic multi-dimensional work of literature and leaves it up to us to sort it out, to give it meaning. As a writer I know that it has to be stitched together somewhere and as a critic I want to find out how the stitching is concealed, but there is an inner core to the narrative which keeps me at arms length from the workings. There is resonance and compassion here and I’m at home in the hands of a master. When I finally put the book down I wonder that there is an alternative ‘real’ landscape outside of its pages and I know that I’ve been in the hands of a sorceress.
Larry’s Party is the story of Larry Weller, floral designer. An ordinary man with an obsession about mazes and a compulsion to find himself. Like The Stone Diaries, this novel plays with form. It alternates back and forth between the years 1977 and 1997 and plays with wisdom, humour and tenderness while following Larry on his ironic odyssey of a modern man. Again, there is no plot; Shields is enthralled by detail and has no time left for the development of a formal plot line. There is a story here; there are many stories here, and beginnings and middles and endings of other stories. By concentrating her gaze on the mundane Carol Shields provides the reader with something magnificent.
Great summer. And not a mystery in sight, apart from the mystery of men and women and what makes us tick.