Unless by Carol Shields

Winner of the 2003 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize

Shortlisted for the 2003 Orange Prize

Shortlisted for the 2002 Man Booker Prize

Shortlisted for the 2002 Giller Prize

Shortlisted for the 2002 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction

Selected for Canada Reads 2011

I have had a few Carol Shields’ books on the shelves for a while now, but I am fairly unfamiliar with her work. Best known for her 1993 novel The Stone Diaries, winner of the Governor-General’s Award and the Pulitzer Prize, the only book to win both national prizes, Unless was Shields’ last novel, released less then a year before her death. Her style of writing is from the more old-style modernist CanLit style, a throwback to 60s and 70s literary traditions. This is a novel about feminism, not in a “hear-me-roar” sense, but an eye opening look at the trials and tribulations that go along with being a mother and wife. Unless is not a book for everyone. The first-person narration gets almost unbearable at parts and the overly used metaphors of the novel Reta is working on can grate on the nerves. The novel is well written but it just wasn’t my cup of tea; I struggled to get through it and had it not been chosen for Canada Reads this year I likely would not have finished it.

Perhaps because it was written at the tail-end of Carol Shields’ life, Unless has a very reflective, almost elegiac tone to it. I think this is what put me off. When you have this elegiac tone, which I generally do not like, combined with a narrator that I find to be self-righteous and have a chip on her shoulder, you get a very slow read and a very sluggish book. There is very little forward momentum. We are occasionally given bits of story, mostly centered on Reta’s writing or her panhandling daughter, but we are also given long indulgent diatribes about things like shopping for a scarf that goes on for what feels like 20 pages. The language is very poetic, and had the novel had a bit more forward movement I would say that it was a beautiful piece.  Unlike the other Canada Reads 2011 books I have read this year, the characters were very unmemorable; I finished this book less than 24 hours ago and I had trouble recalling the cast members’ names for this review.

This novel must have it fans, otherwise it wouldn’t have made it on the top 40 and top 10 lists, then eventually being chosen for the Canada Reads competition. I am pleased though that Shields finally made it into this competition. Her inclusion is a posthumous addition to an almost perfect resume: winner of the Canadian Authors’ Association Award for the Best Novel, the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Canadian Mystery, the Governor-General’s Award, the National Book Critics Award, the Pulitzer, the Orange Prize, the Charles Taylor Prize, a pair of Giller nominations, and a pair of Booker nominations; this Canada Reads nod is a much deserved honour. I have a feeling that a Carol Shields novel could be an experience to be remembered and Unless simply wasn’t the one to provide it. I plan on reading Larry’s Party in the near future since I’ve heard this is one of her best. I think that this will be the first book voted off the show this year, not because it is a “bad” book, simply because it is not a book that I think everyone in Canada will enjoy.

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3 responses

  1. Too bad you didn’t enjoy it, I do hope that I have better luck with it.

    1. I hope you do too. It’s not a bad book, just not my type (a la George Costanza-it’s not you it’s me).

  2. I only made it 50 pages in before abandoning it for all the reasons you didn’t care for it.

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