Carol Shields has made the Booker Prize shortlist before this novel, back in 1993 for “The Stone Diaries” (the year Roddy Doyle’s “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha” took home the prize), this same novel winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. Her novel “Larry’s Party” won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 1997 and “Unless” was also nominated for the Orange Prize in 2003. Given her prominence in the award stakes it is a pity her Wikipedia page is quite short – but what sort of kudos do you expect for prominent female writers?
“Unless” is a shameless defence of female writing, a novel where our protagonist, Reta Winters, is a female author as well as translator of feminist writer Danielle Westerman’s works. Reta’s own daughter, Norah, has suffered a meltdown of sorts and is silently begging on a street corner with a sign simply stating “goodness”. What has driven Norah to the brink? Simply being confused about her place in a male dominated society? But how do you expose the inequality whilst you are concurrently writing about domestic bliss, snuggling up to your husband Tom whilst locking yourself away each day to complete the follow up to your debut novel a ‘romantic comedy’?
She believes that Norah has simply succumbed to the traditional refuge of women without power: she has accepted in its stead complete powerlessness, total passivity, a kind of impotent piety. In doing nothing she has claimed everything.
A wonderful balance of hard feminist messages vs. the veneer wrapping of weekly gatherings for tea, home cooking and other domestic chores, curtain signals, lack of assertiveness when dealing with her inept male editor and other self-deprecating behaviour.
This is a fine balancing act of home life, the angst of losing her eldest daughter, her career and her cry for help. Here we have a writer writing about a writer who is writing about a writer and the literature lessons come thick and fast, from how to construct a best seller through to singularly male influences.
Novels help us turn down the volume of our own interior “discourse,” but unless they can provide us with an alternative, hopeful course, they’re just so much narrative crumble. Unless, unless.
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. (If you add a capital s to unless, you get Sunless, or San Soleil, a very odd Chris Marker film.)
‘Unless’ was Carol Shield’s last novel, she died in 2003, and I can only feel that she was operating at the peak of her powers when constructing this multi layered piece. The narrative structure having little to do with the messages contained within.
Because Tom is a man, because I love him dearly, I haven’t told him what I believe: that the world is split in two, between those who are handed power at birth, at gestation, encoded with a seemingly random chromosome determinate that says yes for ever and ever, and those like Norah, like Danielle Westerman, like my mother, like my mother-in-law, like me, like all of us who fall into the uncoded otherness in which the power to assert ourselves and claim our lives has been displaced by a compulsion to shut down our bodies and seal our mouths and be as nothing against the fireworks and streaking stars and blinding light of the Big Bang. That’s the problem.
Very much a worthy inclusion on the Man Booker shortlist, a novel that unashamedly says the works of female writers are not celebrated or studied enough. Hopefully one that will be remembered as a shining light by a wonderful female writer.