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Authors / Remembering Carol Shields

April 02nd, 2008

When I first met Carol, vialis 40mg she had recently published The Stone Diaries and I had reviewed it for the Vancouver Sun. Literally millions of women were recognizing themselves in the heroine Daisy, search who came into the world through the dead body of a woman simultaneously producing a summer pudding.

In a conversation in my garden, order where the peaches were ripening and falling on the lawn, Carol described her mother’s fussiness with peaches canned in blue jars and arranged, just so, in patterns that reflected her own idea of a universal design. As a child, she had been impatient with this perfectionism, but as she described the blue glass and the beautifully complementary golden peaches, we were directed to silence, realizing that this had been her mother’s art.

Carol Shields was born in 1935. Her mother was a teacher; her father was the manager of a candy factory. No outrageousness, no trauma, no precocity marked her childhood. She and her twin sisters had a regular pattern of eating, sleeping and going to the library. Perhaps no one noticed Carol was always thinking while she sucked those hard candies.

She graduated from Hanover College, the University of Exeter, and the University of Ottawa, and married Don, a professor of Civil Engineering, and had five children. When her children were grown, she taught at the University of Ottawa, UBC and the University of Manitoba. She later became Chancellorship Emeritus of the University of Winnipeg, after she had received off-hand treatment afforded to female faculty at another university.

Over the course of 13 books of fiction, three collections of poetry, numerous plays, a biography and two anthologies of non-fiction, Shield’s writing has matured the way fruit perfects itself in jars, in that cool dark room behind the eyes where women take refuge. Every observed ordinariness in her observation becomes extraordinary.

It is her understanding of the small events that allows Shields to make the imaginative leaps to universality that have made her one of the outstanding writers of her time, winning the Orange Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Governor General’s Award and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award.

Carol and Don Shields recently moved to Victoria. It had been their retirement plan to live in a condominium at Songhees on the beautiful inner harbour, near the Empress Hotel and Rattenbury-designed late Victorian Legislative buildings. The condo leaked and Carol developed breast cancer. At first, she refused to look in her bathroom mirror during the chemotherapy and radiation treatments that vanished her hair.

“The bathroom was walled in mirrors,” she says. “It took skill to bathe and brush my teeth without looking.”

Women are used to living their lives in mirrors, constantly looking for reassurance. Windows and mirrors are places of entry and exit throughout Carol’s canon. “Unless you can look in the mirror and see a benign and generous and healthy human being, you shrink from acts of hospitality,” says Elizabeth in ‘Dying for Love,’ a story in Dressing Up for the Carnival.

Eventually Carol apprehended herself, catching hold of her image, in its encircling flesh, and realized this disintegrating quilted envelope would accompany her to the end, and she had lost forever the power to stir ardour.

During her first convalescence, Carol chose to write a biography of one of the past masters of the art and artifice of women, Jane Austen (Penguin $28.99). Don Shields complained that Carol became Austen while researching and writing the book. One of her astonishing revelations is the likelihood that Austen also suffered from breast cancer. It is easy to imagine Shields as a reconstituted virgin, Austen-like, sitting at a secretary in the corner of some drawing room, listening and taking dictation from the events around her.

The American novelist Dawn Powell once wrote “the most important thing for a novelist is curiosity and how curious that so many of them lack it.” Carol Shields has always had an ear for dialogue and a fine eye for detail. When she praises people, she sometimes says they are “curious,” curious in the sense of information-obsessed; relentless investigators, like herself, like all good writers, like crows gathering shiny things in the garden.

Whether making love beside fragrant jasmine hedges, weeding the vegetables, or drying the healing herbs and the potpourri for trousseau chests, the lives of women in Shields’ fiction have frequently been lived and preserved in terms of the garden. The wilderness inside the enclosed garden is her provenance.

The Shields’ new house, in her own word, is “huge.” Carol was embarrassed to invite her Victoria friends there in the beginning. It takes forever to inhabit so many rooms, filling them with story. This is the feminine way to inhabit a house, through the realization of fantasy. It’s perhaps the reason why women make good realtors.

Now Shields is enduring a recurrence of cancer. Despite repeat chemotherapy, she still breathes life into words, advancing her own plot by sheer will. Carol Shields is running her huge house and “turning up” at artistic and literary events. She has even changed her dress code, “Wearing all those things I always wanted to wear,” letting the gypsy out, to the surprise and occasional horror of Don, who loves her as she is.

Ever curious, she flew to Toronto to the opening of the hit musical Larry’s Party, based on her book, and to Paris for the launch of her play “Treize mains” in French. There was no end to her
enthusiasm for new projects, including Thirteen Hands and Other Plays (Vintage $24.95).

In the afterward she says, “We move through our chapters mostly with gratitude…Surprise keeps us alive, liberates our senses. I thought for a while that a serious illness had interrupted my chaptered life, but no, it is a chapter on its own. Living with illness requires new balancing skills. It changes everything, and I need to listen to it, attend to it and bring to it a stern new sense of housekeeping.”

The woman who managed a handful of children and a trunk load of fiction was managing her transitions with grace. She allowed her husband and children to look after her. That is the chapter she is in. The house she manages now is the imaginary maison lumière, where her fictitious characters live and breathe.

If there is a greater audacity in the writing, it might be due to awareness of mortality. Most significantly, Carol Shields has written Unless (Random House $35.95) , with its perfect title for the always open possibilities of free will. The celebrated novel reveals the ironies of a woman’s life in a much bigger home, this world. It could have been invented by a Zen master, it is so perfectly a threshold.

Unless is as much a philosophical treatise as it is a novel. Her narrator Reta is a writer of minor profile. Shields gives her a quest. Reta believes she has lost her eldest daughter, Norah, the metaphorical granddaughter of Ibsen’s pre-feminist protagonist in The Doll’s House. Norah does the Norah thing. She leaves, and her mother is left dangling over the abyss of “how” and “why.”

Norah, the lost daughter, lives on the street in Toronto with a sign reading GOODNESS hanging around her neck. We don’t know why until the final revelation, but circumstances have driven Norah to question the balance of good and evil. What she is trying to understand is what St. Anselm believed, that evil is the absence of good. She has dissociated herself from conditional love, the boundary that defines family, community and culture, to go beyond borders.

All that matters is GOODNESS, the life force.

Unless is signature Shields. The onion peels layer by layer until the centre reveals itself. Unless transcends gender politics. It is a book about the human condition.

In one stunning chapter, Shields takes us to the outer boundaries of grief. Reta wants to buy a gift for Norah, something perfect like the child she knows. “The scarf became an idea; it must be brilliant and subdued at the same time, finely made, but with a secure sense of its own shape.” Reta is not a shopper, but she is relentless in her quest for the right thing. When she finds it, we begin to feel the possibility of redemption. Mother and daughter must find one another in perfect understanding, whatever the outcome.

Out of generosity, Reta follows her shopping trip by having lunch with her friend and fellow writer, Gwen, who like many artists has been reduced by the realities of the marketplace from altruism to jealousy. When she shows the scarf to her, Reta thinks Gwen understands, because she says, “Finding it, it’s almost as though you made it. You invented it, created it out of your imagination.” The scarf becomes, for one moment, more than silk. It constitutes a bond between women.

Gwen accepts the scarf for herself; Reta lets it slip through her fingers. This is a stunning and horrible moment in the book. We feel everything slip away: mother, child, the world itself. In this moment, Reta may or may not be betraying her daughter by letting her go when she thinks she ought to hold on. Grief is the silk scarf we drop, because we believe we must give whatever is asked of us. Sometimes goodness resides in denial. Perhaps Norah, who has forsaken the material world, is more evolved than her mother.

Unless is the essential book of a great writer and a great human. That Carol Shields has given so much of herself in order that we can move closer to the light is an extreme act of generosity.

Essay Date: 2003

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