Carol Shields
Toronto: Random House, 2002. Pp. 321. $35.95

Reviewed by Nora Foster Stovel

Unless, the latest novel by award-winning Canadian novelist Carol Shields, author of The Stone Diaries (1993), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction, does not disappoint.

Reta Winters, née Summers, appears at age forty-three to have it alla loving husband who is a doctor, three engaging teenage daughters, a sprawling old farmhouse in Orangetown just an hour north of Toronto, and a successful career as translator and novelist. But suddenly her eldest daughter, Norah, the most thoughtful and literary of the three, drops outout of school at the University of Toronto, out of her apartment with her boyfriend Ben Abbott, out of her family home, and out of life. She sits in silence on the corner of Bloor and Bathhurstwhere poet Ed Lewinski hanged himself, where Margherita Tolles experienced an epiphany about her adopted country that led her to write a great plays and where a Muslim woman immolated herselfwith a begging bowl in front of her and a sign around her neck reading "Goodness."

The question is why. Unless is a novel of interpretationhow to interpret Norah's defection from life and from her self. Theories abound, one of the most compelling from Danielle Westerman, the French feminist whose memoirs Reta has translated: Norah is responding to the powerlessness of women in patriarchal society. Not being able to achieve everything, she has chosen to embrace nothing: "Subversion of society is possible for a mere few; inversion is more commonly the tactic for the powerless, a retreat from society that borders on the catatonic" (218), Westerman writes. Not being able to achieve greatness, reserved for men, Norah pursues goodness.

Reta begins her confessional narrative in 2000 with the tragedy of her daughter's defection. Unless is thus a millennial novel, a study of tragedy before and after, a tragedy as real to Reta as the loss of loved ones in the September 11 disaster. Realizing that she has been living in a fool's paradise until now, Reta writes a feminine Paradise Lost. "Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it's smashed you have to move into a different sort of life" (1). Powerless to intervene or to understand her daughter's defection, she is forced to "count [her] blessings" (1). And she does, chapter by chapter.

Unless is composed of thirty-seven brief chapters chronicling various aspects of Reta Winters's lifeher home, her family, her friends, her work. In true Shields fashion, the surface is composed of domesticity and dailiness. But beneath that engaging surface lie subversive questions about human society, and especially about women in this essentially feminist novel. Each chapter has a titlewords like "instead, otherwise, despite, already and not yet" (313)the glue of grammar. The chapter titled "Unless" offers a clue to the metafictional mystery: "Novels help us turn down the volume of our own interior 'discourse,' but unless they can provide an alternative, hopeful course, they're just so much narrative crumble. Unless, unless" (224).

Work is Reta's salvation, and she begins by counting, literally, the works that she has published, beginning with her translations of Danielle Westerman's memoirs, and continuing with her own first full-length fiction, My Thyme is Up. The distraction offered by literatureboth reading and writingis her salvation. Her editor urges her to write a sequel to her surprisingly successful comic novel, and the ongoing story of Alicia, fashion writer, and Roman, Albanian trombonist, fills her mind and her pages. She plans to call this novel of courtship Thyme in Bloom, saving Autumn Thyme for a possible third and final volume in a potential trilogy. This confection offers a comic metafictional element to Shields's profound narrative of moral questioning. Shields's epigraph from George Eliot's Middlemarch could also provide a clue to this mystery: "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence." Essentially, Unless discovers what lies on the other side of silence and debates the eternal struggle between good and evil, hope and despair. Shields addresses this moral dilemma with characteristic wisdom and wit, grace and, yes, charm.