A Review of Unless by Carol Shields

Unless by Carol Shields has been my third novel in a row written from the perspective of a self-analytical, self-critical and perhaps self-obsessed female narrator, the other being by Margaret Drabble and Anne Enright. Maybe Carol Shields drew the short straw, because I felt that Reta, the writer-narrator of Unless, internalised everything, so much so, in fact, that the other characters in the book became no more than projections of themselves within her. Maybe that was part of the point.

Ostensibly about a family of ordinary people, Unless portrays Reta Winters, her partner Tom and their three daughters. They live an hour from Toronto in a home that sounds as big as a village. Reta can’t decide how many rooms there are, or even what might constitute a room. Tom’s a medic and Reta is a published author of moderate success. Not, at least for me, run-of-the-mill ordinary folk.

The eldest daughter, Norah, a nineteen year old determined to make her own marks, has recently left home to live with a boyfriend. She has dropped out of college and then she suddenly took to sleeping rough, occasionally in a hostel for the homeless, whilst, during the day sitting on a street corner behind a sign saying, “Goodness”. Reta can’t rationalise her daughter’s apparent rejection of everything she was supposed to be and begins to delve into her own psyche for clues. It affects her work, her family life and her relationships, all of which must, of course, go on.

Throughout, the narrative is both clear and crisp. Reta’s character is credible, if a little prone to a lack of self-awareness, despite the fact that she seems to have majored in the topic to the extent that her self-preoccupation verges on the obsessive. Her writing progresses, but for me unconvincingly. A light read, something twixt romance and general fiction, is what she is looking for. Quite why the main character needs to be an Albanian trombonist (good at sex, apparently, because of the regular arm-pumping) only Carol Shields knows. There were comic opportunities that were never taken and, equally, possibilities for parallel lives that were never exploited. Personally, I found the scenario of the novel within the novel, as explained by Reta, herself, the writer, offered neither comic relief nor insight. When Reta’s new editor demands that the light fiction be transformed into the literary by means of, amongst other things, redrawing the last chapter to introduce surprise and enigma, undertones, unexpected depth, we are led directly into the unexpected discovery of the reason behind the unexplained behaviour of Reta’s daughter, the events that prompted her drop-out into apparent depression. It ought to have been a poignant moment, but for me it all became a bit pedestrian.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, by the way. My criticisms are technical at best and petty at worst, but I fell I have to record them. Perhaps it was attempting three psyche-analysing, internally-bound first persons on the trot that got to me. Perhaps I too got lost inside myself as I read. Carol Shields’s “I” was a darned sight more balanced and self-sufficient than either Drabble’s or Enright’s. Perhaps if Reta had made a bit more fuss I would have found her more credible. But that, undoubtedly, was her strength.


Post time: 12-03-2016