A while ago (I promise, not all my blogs will begin with those words, though for the moment it seems the truest reflection of my reading) a reading friend recommended Carol Shields to me and I went out and bought two of her books (Unless and Larry’s Party) and delivered them to the black hole of my book shelves where they have remained gathering dust for some considerable time. This is the fate of many books that I have bought and in my desire to ‘knock some of them off’ before slowing the pace of my reading in 2017 (the guzzling before the fast) I decided it was about time I read one of them. Unless was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and the MAN Booker Prize, which should be recommendation enough (though the Booker is often patchy, imo) but it seems even illustriousness is not enough to raise a book out of the swamp of my TBR pile these days. Except when it is, of course.
Anyway, to get to the point. Unless follows the story of Reta Winters, a writer and a (not) wife and a mother living in a small town in Canada. Her primary work is translation, she has diligently translated the poetry of the great writer Danielle Westerman over many years and is working on translating her memoirs, but she has also had some modest success with a novel of her own, a light story by the name of My Thyme is Up. Her (not) husband, Tom is a doctor and she has three daughters: Norah, Natalie and Christine. The story centres around a small tragedy – Norah, her eldest daughter, has inexplicably given up her life and taken to sitting on a street corner with a placard around her neck with the word ‘goodness’ written on it, begging. She lives in a hostel for the homeless and she has stopped talking to her family. No one knows why Norah, an otherwise diligent and promising young woman, has taken this course of action. Tom suspects some kind of post-traumatic distress disorder whereas Reta believes Norah has arrived at that essential truth – that women are invisible in society and that she will never achieve or receive recognition of her desires.
What follows is a gentle yet compelling story. Reta tries to come to terms with Norah’s decision whilst feeling quietly angry about it. She embarks on a new novel as a follow up to My Thyme is Up, an act recommended by her agent Mr Scribiano (fortuitous name) as a way of taking her mind of the tragedy of Norah. As well as working on the novel, Reta cleans obsessively and muses on the former occupant of her home – a Mrs. McGinn – whose name she knows because she finds a lost invitation to Mrs McGinn down the back of a radiator whilst cleaning, a matter which becomes inextricably linked in Reta’s mind to Norah’s situation:
“No one has ever seen a trilobite, since they exist only in the fossil record, but the sections of its bony thorax recorded in stone were so perfectly made that, when threatened, these creatures were able to curl up, each segment nesting into the next and protecting the soft animal underbodies. This act is called enrolment, a rather common behaviour for arthropods, and it seems to me that this is what Tom has been doing these past weeks. I clean my house and he “enrols” into a silence that carries him further away from me than the fleeting figure of Mrs. McGinn who rests like a dust mote in the corner of my eye, wondering why she was not invited to her friend’s baby shower on that March evening backing in 1961. It nags at her. She is disappointed in herself. Her life has been burning up one day at a time – she understands this for the first time – and she’s swallowed the flames without blinking. Now, suddenly, this emptiness. Nothing has prepared her for the wide, grey simplicity of sadness and for the knowledge that this is what the rest of her life will be like, living in a falling apart house that wishes she weren’t there.”
Reta has lived a small life, as many women do. She is oppressively middle-class, yet not unsympathetic (though why the middle-class should be unsympathetic I’m not sure, or, for that matter, like a bland jam in the country-sandwich but that’s how they’re often portrayed, or so it seems) and her worries about Norah are both understandable and very real. Reta doesn’t explore from her sadness, though she takes to writing letters to people who have written books or articles in which they opine only about the accomplishments of men, as a way of rationalising what Norah has done and why she is seeking this ‘goodness’ which Reta doesn’t quite understand. There’s a deep anger there, but one which she doesn’t express except in fantasy and supposition. Reta is incapable of lashing out, though often there are reasons to do so.
Unless is a strangely gentle novel; on the one hand it is light in tone, barely anything happens and we spend our time sketching the surface of Reta’s life and thoughts. On the other it’s strangely insidious. Reta’s observations become increasingly powerful though she is never forceful either in her opinions or actions. And it is this strange duality which leaves me unsure about the book. It is entertaining to read, the characters interesting most especially Norah who is silent for much of the book. Its depths are quiet, and mirror-like. Yet I’m not sure. Did I like it? I think I did, but I’m not sure I fully understood it. It is a book, I think, about interstices, about the unspoken or the equivocated. It is not one thing or another, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hang together. In many respects it hangs together more strongly than a more forthright text would, and it’s a clever and interesting read. So I think I’m saying I liked it, maybe, probably, unless.
Unless is published by 4th Estate