Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Unless

Posted by nliakos on July 8, 2009

by Carol Shields.  Fourth Estate, 2002.

I think I enjoyed The Stone Diaries, but I had trouble getting excited about Unless.  (I didn’t notice until I was almost done with it that all the chapter titles were adverbs, with a few preposiitons thrown in for good measure; but what the titles have to do with the chapters themselves wasn’t obvious.)  Carol Shields was a woman writer writing about a woman writer (Reta Winters) writing about a woman writer (Alicia something or other) writing about…. you get the picture.  Except that Reta’s eldest daughter has inexplicably dropped out of college and started begging for a living on the streets of Toronto.  This is hugely disturbing to Reta, her husband Tom, and their two younger daughters.  (While I am sure it would indeed be very upsetting, I can think of lots of worse things that could happen to one’s child.  As Reta points out, she knows exactly where her daughter is and can go and see her whenever she wants, even if the girl refuses to talk to her.)  In the end, the reason for Norah’s rejection of family, friends, home, and education becomes clear and all ends “happily.”  I thought the ending was too pat, actually.

I did enjoy this little eponymous paragraph:

“Unless is the worry word of the English language.  It flies like a moth around the ear, you hardly hear it, and yet everything depends on its breathy presence. Unless–that’s the little subjunctive mineral you carry along in your pocket crease.  It’s always there, or else not there…. Unless you’re lucky, unless you’re healthy, fertile, unless you’re loved and fed, unless you’re clear about your sexual direction, unless you’re offered what others are offered, you go down in darkness, down to despair. Unless provides you with a trapdoor, a tunnel into the light, the reverse side of not enough. Unless keeps you from drowing in the presiding arrangements. Ironically, unless, the lever that finally shifts reality into a new perspective, cannot be expressed in French.  A moins que does have quite the heft; sauf is crude.  Unless is a miracle of language and perception,…. It makes us anxious, makes us cunning….But it gives us hope. (pp. 224-225)

It’s a book to be passed on, not one I would keep on my shelf.

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