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Unless (2002)

af Carol Shields

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2,785893,657 (3.61)320
For all of her days, Reta Winters has enjoyed the useful monotony of happiness: a loving family, good friends, growing success as a writer of light fiction, novels 'for summertime.' This placid existence cracks open one fearful day when her beloved oldest daughter, Norah, drops out of life to sit on a gritty street corner, silent but for the sign around her neck that reads 'GOODNESS.' Reta's search for what drove her daughter to such a desperate statement turns into an unflinching and surprisingly funny meditation on where we find meaning and hope. Warmth, passion and wisdom come together in Carol Shields' remarkably supple prose. Unless, a harrowing but ultimately consoling story of one family's anguish and healing, proves her mastery of extraordinary fictions about ordinary life.… (mere)
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Viser 1-5 af 89 (næste | vis alle)
I very much liked this book. I was a little worried about the titles of the chapters - "so", "instead", "hence", ...and of course "unless" - worried that this might go stream-of-consciousness. But I need not have been concerned. The book has a trajectory that takes us along.

Reta Winters, a capable parent and writer, is thrown when her oldest daughter, Norah, suddenly drops out from school and sits on a street corner holding a begging bowl and wearing a sign that says "goodness". She worries about her daughter's safety, her health, her emotional state. She wonders why. Why this particular act? Her daughter does not offer an explanation.

Meanwhile, Reta writes letters to male authors about the exclusion of women in their lists, their perceptions, but doesn't mail them. She continues to translate a French feminist's work and lives within it. Her life in her family continues without Norah.

Quietly, other members of the family "visit" Norah or help her in other ways. She won't explain herself but they love her and try not to intrude.

Reta has written a light novel which has found such success that her publisher wants a sequel. Reluctantly, Reta agrees, but over time the new novel morphs into something altogether different.

As others have done, I will repeat Shields' statement here:

"A life is full of isolated events, but these events, if they are to form a coherent narrative, require odd pieces of language to cement them together, little chips of grammar (mainly adverbs or prepositions) that are hard to define, since they are abstractions of location or relative position, words like therefore, else, other, also, thereof, theretofore, instead, otherwise, despite, already, and not yet."

She amplifies:"...what really is the point of novel writing when the unjust world howls and writhes...unless they can provide an alternative, hopeful course, they're just so much narrative crumble".

As I struggle with Reta to make sense of her life, I agree with many others that this novel is not narrative crumble. It's deeply moving and engaging. ( )
  slojudy | Sep 8, 2020 |
Truly lovely. I didn't want to stop reading. As she says, a woman writing about a woman writing (about a woman writing!) could end up endlessly recursive and solipsistic, but it doesn't. I love the way she structures this work, with the different aspects of Reta's life, history, letters etc. She builds up a portrait in such a tender way. I could stay immersed in her writing for a long time.

This is the first novel I've read by Carol Shields (I think? I'm terrible with names), and it definitely won't be the last. I read one of her short stories at book group which I also loved, so I'm going to seek out more of them too.

Highly recommend this. ( )
  RFellows | Apr 29, 2020 |
The theme of this novel is quite a simple one- narrator Reta Summers is a writer, fluctuating between translations of the learned works of a French-speaking authoress and her own romantic fiction. With a long term partner and three children, her life would appear content- except that her eldest daughter- for no apparent reason- has 'dropped out', begging in the street and sleeping in a hostel.
And so Reta takes us through her life; family, meeting with friends, work- always set against the impotent sadness of a mother unable to connect with her child. And she imagines...the side-lining of women in every aspect of society, which must, she feels, have caused Norah's rejection of her life.
It was highly readable, with very incisive thoughts on life. I particularly loved "We have to live inside the history we're given, but must resist, like radicals, being made into mere creatures of a mere era." ( )
  starbox | Apr 24, 2020 |
This is a book that I can really only categorise with that nebulous description of literary fiction. There is a story here but it is mostly character driven. There are themes of identity, loss, and feminism. Philosophy, even. In some ways it could also be looked as a teaching tool for writing. And yet it entertains as all good books should. ( )
  AngelaJMaher | Nov 22, 2019 |
I read the Pulitzer-winning THE STONE DIARIES years ago and MARY SWANN just last year, so UNLESS (2002) is the third Carol Shields novel I've had the pleasure of reading. It was also her last, as, sadly, she died the following year.

UNLESS is an eloquent testament to the awful predicament of women as perpetual second class citizens in every culture, even in modern day Canada, where this Shields story is set. Protagonist Reta Winters, a doctor's wife and mother of three teenage girls, is a moderately successful novelist and translator whose eldest daughter, Norah, has suddenly dropped out of college and left her boyfriend, and now sits on a Toronto street corner every day with a begging bowl and a simply scrawled sign around her neck saying, GOODNESS. Reta is devastated and deeply disturbed by this and struggles to understand, even as she continues to go through the motions of everyday life, including working on her second novel, which itself takes a turn away from the light, comic romance it had been. She begins to see signs everywhere of how women's accomplishments -

"... have been impeded by their generative responsibility ... Women were busy bearing children ... it comes down to biology and destiny. Women have been hampered by their biology."

In trying to understand why her daughter has shut down, Reta comes to see, to believe -

"... that the world is split in two, between those who are handed power at birth, at gestation ... and those like Norah ... 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 ... That's the problem."

In fact, UNLESS, is every bit as powerful a statement of how women have been subjugated by men as is THE HANDMAID'S TALE, by Margaret Atwood (who is even mentioned briefly). There is also a rather tongue-in-cheek nod to the importance of writing, that "writerly impulse," or -

" ... a life spent affixing small words to large, empty pages ... This matters, the remaking of an untenable world through the nib of a pen; it matters so much I can't stop doing it. "

It would be too easy to simply file this novel alongside Atwood's under feminist fiction, and it would also be a tremendous disservice to Shields. There is just so much more to consider here. UNLESS is a complex and beautifully written novel on mothers and daughters, on marriage, on writing and the creative impulse itself. I was completely caught up in the life of this woman, Reta Winters. She was that real. My highest recommendation.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER ( )
1 stem TimBazzett | Oct 27, 2019 |
Viser 1-5 af 89 (næste | vis alle)
You hear Iris Murdoch at the back of this book somewhere, or at least Shields has ingrained Murdoch's faith in love, and pursues her stringent inquisition into hope. The result is as poised and wise a novel as any you will read this year.
tilføjet af lkernagh | RedigerThe Observer, Tim Adams (May 12, 2002)
 
There is a sense of wintry urgency about Unless - of any pretence of charm being dropped in order to get things said. But the charm is still there, and it shouldn't be belittled.
tilføjet af lkernagh | RedigerThe Guardian, Blake Morrison (Apr 27, 2002)
 
But Unless is her angriest book to date - a study in awakening and the belated loss of innocence...Unless could be classified as a novel about a woman writing a novel about a woman who writes. But this would suggest something claustrophobic, which it isn't. Though only 200 pages long, it finds room to digress on friendship, shopping, marital sex, relativity theory, hair ("I consider coiffure one of my major life accomplishments. I really mean this"), graffiti and much besides....There is a sense of wintry urgency about Unless - of any pretence of charm being dropped in order to get things said. But the charm is still there, and it shouldn't be belittled. Bard of the banal? No, elegist of the everyday. We should celebrate her achievement while we can.

 

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For all of her days, Reta Winters has enjoyed the useful monotony of happiness: a loving family, good friends, growing success as a writer of light fiction, novels 'for summertime.' This placid existence cracks open one fearful day when her beloved oldest daughter, Norah, drops out of life to sit on a gritty street corner, silent but for the sign around her neck that reads 'GOODNESS.' Reta's search for what drove her daughter to such a desperate statement turns into an unflinching and surprisingly funny meditation on where we find meaning and hope. Warmth, passion and wisdom come together in Carol Shields' remarkably supple prose. Unless, a harrowing but ultimately consoling story of one family's anguish and healing, proves her mastery of extraordinary fictions about ordinary life.

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