The Idea of “Goodness”

October 5, 2002

Carol Shields, Unless, London: Fourth Estate, 2002.

Reviewed by Susan Bendall

UnlessUnless is Carol Shields’ latest novel and although it deals with power, sexual politics and the interconnectedness of people and events, it does so in a deliberately contained domestic context.  Reta, the novel’s centre, acts as a conduit through which notions of family, love and relationships of various kinds are played out against an exploration of more challenging and, at first, more distant realities.

Reta is a 44 year-old writer: a novelist and translator.  Her life is presented as a privileged and fortunate one; she lives very comfortably with her husband and daughters and can afford the luxury of writing full-time, meeting friends for coffee and allowing life to take its own shape.  The carefully managed order of Reta’s life begins to disintegrate when her 19 year-old daughter, Norah, suddenly appears on a street corner, silently proclaiming “Goodness”, from a sign hung around her neck.  What follows is a search for meanings and an explanation for the silent Norah’s retreat from the world.

The idea of “goodness” becomes problematic and inscrutable as it takes on an echoing significance in Reta’s world.  It is pitted against “greatness”, seen in the novel as a privilege accorded men and denied to women.  Reta speculates bitterly, largely through the device of a series of unsent letters to prominent men, that it is Norah’s exclusion from the possibility of greatness that has caused her to abdicate from life.  These letters are vicious, slightly hysterical and somewhat comical in their extravagant invective.

The dynamics of power are examined through gender but also through Reta’s relationship with Danielle Westerman, a feminist thinker who dominates her intellectually, culturally and also professionally: Reta’s most significant work, for most of the novel, is her translation of the volumes of Danielle’s biography.

The novel self-consciously miniaturises its themes, even heading each chapter with “little chips of grammar”, that read as disembodied utterances: Here’s, Otherwise, So, Since, Ever…  Shields explains late in the novel that “Life is full of isolated events, but these events, if they are to form a coherent narrative, require odd pieces of language to cement them together”.  Chapters are short and episodic and although complete in some ways also carry a sense of being fragments of something larger.

Many of the novel’s preoccupations are seen through the act of writing.  Unless is a very self- conscious reflection on the art.  The book considers what it means to write, what constitutes a serious voice and how undervalued certain kinds of writing are.  Reta is a respected translator of another’s life, but strives to have her own voice recognised and approved.  Her fiction writing, while successful enough, is largely dismissed and understood to be light and without enduring qualities.  Reta understands and appreciates writing and struggles to maintain authenticity in her own fictional work.  Her writing is deliberately crafted, but her new editor’s attempt at catapulting her work into the realms of  “greatness” is misguided.

Being Shields’ last novel – the author is in the final stages of breast cancer – it will perhaps be tempting for readers to take imaginative liberties with the text.  No doubt this writing is informed by the knowledge of human closure.  It is not, however, pervasively dark; rather it is a gently written, witty and rather lyrical novel which will not disappoint Shields’ many admirers.


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