Unless: A Novel
Reta Winters has many reasons
to be happy. Then in the spring of her forty-fourth year,
all the quiet satisfactions of her well-lived life disappear
in a moment: her eldest daughter Norah suddenly runs from
the family and ends up mute and begging on a Toronto street
corner with a hand-lettered sign reading GOODNESS around
Piercing and sad, astute and evocative, full of tenderness
and laughter, Unless will stand with The Stone
Diaries in the canon of Carol Shields’s fiction.
here to order.
From page one [Shields] commands
her place as a writer capable of astounding prose and
perspective….It is the kind of writing that makes one
stop, take a breath, then reread."
- The Hamilton
here to read excerpt.
Orange Prize for Fiction 2003
Man Booker Prize 2002
Scotiabank Giller Prize 2002
BC Book Prize's Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize 2003
Governor General's Literary Awards - Fiction 2002
Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award - Author of
the Year 2003
Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Canada & Caribbean)
Books of Decade List, Times of London, 2009
…poignant, yet often astringently
funny….as ever, Shields' graceful prose is a pleasure
to read. She has a remarkable way of describing things
one might already know, but she does so in surprising,
fresh and distinctly new ways, ways that allow the reader
to understand something anew."
- Winnipeg Free
Like The Stone Diaries and
its tour-de-force follow-up novel, Larry's Party,
Unless presents itself, almost insistently, as
a story about ordinary lives. But then, through her
sensitive observation and exacting prose, the author
proceeds to flip them over and show us their uncommon
Post Book World (US)
by Clara Thomas, Books in Canada.
Unless is the story Reta
Winters tells us as she endures the breakaway of Norah,
her eldest daughter, from family, boyfriend, girlfriends
and university. Every day Norah sits cross-legged on the
northeast corner of Bloor and Bathurst, a begging bowl
on her lap and a cardboard sign on her chest. GOODNESS,
it says. Norah's defection from a normal life is an inexplicable
mystery arising from the totally unlikely context of a
loving family: Tom, the doctor father; Reta, the writer,
translator, housewife mother; two younger sisters, Natalie
and Christine; a treasured old dog, Pet; and their rambling
old home on the outskirts of Orangetown, an hour's drive
from Toronto. Day by day, Reta practices strategies to
survive the cruel present: "It's abrupt and brutal. It's
killing us. What will really kill us, though, is the day
we DON'T find her sitting on her chosen square of pavement."
All novelists worth their fictional
salt can create characters; Carol Shields creates lives...As
with all her work, the lives she creates [here] are
lovingly delineated, shot through with recognizable
reality. The writing itself is perhaps better than ever,
pellucid and knowing, as naturally paced as breathing
itself, yet with images so apt they pounce off the page...Shields'
readers will encounter great poignancy and great wisdom
in this book...Carol Shields remakes the world and returns
it to us, with hope, grace and redeeming life."
- New York Times
Book Review (US)
LOS ANGELES TIMES
The Goodbye Girl
By Jane Ciabattari, May 12, 2002
"Unless," Carol Shields' 10th novel, is
a thing of beauty-lucidly written, artfully ordered, riddled
with riddles and undergirded with dark layers of philosophical
meditations upon the relative value of art, the realistic
possibilities for women "who want only to be fully human"
and the nature of goodness, that enduring human dilemma
also worked thoroughly by Saul Bellow. What is goodness?
How can goodness survive in the face of evil? How should
a good woman-or man-live?.
Carol Shields's latest novel [is]
her most questing and perhaps most personal yet. Unless
is a defence of the art of fiction, but at the same
time is deeply sceptical of it. It is intellectual and
philosophical, but at the same time celebrates the mundane.
Only a writer with the technical skill and warm humanity
of Shields is capable of holding such contradictions
in the delicate and satisfying balance that she achieves
here... Unless is the purest expression of her
art. It is required reading."
- The Mail on
Hell hath no fury
Blake Morrison finds Carol Shields releasing her anger
By Blake Morrison, April 27, 2002
The chapter headings of Carol Shields's
new novel take the form of prepositions and conjunctions
- Notwithstanding, Despite, Whatever, etc. The word "But"
is not among them, though it's one she has met, in open
deprecation or as a silent parenthesis, when her books
are reviewed. Her best-known books - Happenstance,
The Stone Diaries, Larry's Party, The
Republic of Love - are known for their accessibility
(but not for their wisdom); are praised for their exquisite
touch (but not for their risk-taking); or are said to
do domestic ordinariness wonderfully (but not wider social
Brilliant, humane and deeply satisfying….
It is part of Shields's genius that she so often offers
up humour and compassion on the same plate -- sometimes
spiced with a subtle political comment or two. But,
I repeat, this is only a part of her genius. The true
gift that she gives us is that of her enormous wisdom,
a wisdom that is achingly apparent in this amazing combination
of darkness and light, humour and pathos called Unless.
The fact that there are no clear answers to the questions
that surround the nature of goodness, happiness, sorrow,
does not mean that these conditions should remain unexamined.
It is examinations of this kind that enhance life itself.
And who better than this author to show us where to
look, what to pay attention to? What better guide than
a book like Unless, and what better companion
than Carol Shields?"
- Jane Urquhart,
The Globe and Mail
Unless: A Novel - 2002
"I like to think
of this book on these four little legs: this idea of
mothers and children; the idea of writers and readers
- I wanted to talk about the writing process; I wanted
to talk about goodness; and then I wanted to talk about
men and women - this gender issue, which interests me
so much and has actually been a part of every book I've
written. I think I am always writing about this."
- Carol Shields
from the interview "Ideas of Goodness" with Eleanor
published in Random Illuminations, Conversations
with Carol Shields
Unless is about a writer, Reta
Winters, a middle-aged novelist, mother, and translator
who lives in a pastoral town just outside Toronto. Reta
lives a happy and successful life until her eldest daughter,
Norah, suddenly and inexplicably abandons family, boyfriend,
and university to sit, cross legged and silent, begging
on the northeast corner of Bloor and Bathhurst wearing a
sign that reads only "Goodness".
Unless was published Carol Shields was in her mid-60's.
She and Don had retired to Victoria and were living in
their wonderful Georgian home with sunlight streaming
in from all sides warming the rooms filled with books
and clocks, collected art and treasures from their life
together, her children grown and leading successful lives,
all with children of their own. But, like Reta Winters
in Unless, Carol was coping with her own pain and
sense of loss. And yet there was joy to be found, and
shared, in even the smallest of things. Carol and Don
came into our lives the year before. We were neighbours,
had mutual friends, enjoyed the evenings when they would
walk down our shared "country lane" and join us at our
table for a meal and conversation (always preceded by
Carol taking the time to really look at the table and
how it was set), were privileged to attend their famous
Christmas parties and meet their many, many friends. I
will be forever grateful for the time we had with Carol,
I only wish it could have been longer. ...
Generous and inquiring of heart,
muted in its palette, this is a grammar of melancholy:
of a particular sadness, both domestic and worldly,
that arrives unbidden and settles in…. Outrage, humour,
compassion, and the elegant arcs of language that distinguish
Carol Shields's enduring body of work: these are here
in spades. Complacency is absent, and anything that
smells of defeat. Unless is a graceful summing-up
-- a backward glance, an acknowledgement of this moment,
and, finally, the truest assurance that art can give:
the future starts now. "
- Bill Richardson,
If writers were rivers, Shields
would flow more deeply and more mysteriously than it
would appear from standing on the bank."
Some books come along at just the right time -- Erica
Jong's 'Fear of Flying', Doris Lessing's 'The Golden
Notebook' or Syvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar' come to mind
-- capturing the exact thoughts and feelings of women
at a certain moment in history. Carol Shields' 10th
novel Unless is just such a book. In Unless,
now the best of her novels, Shields has illuminated
not only one woman's life, but has reflected the joys,
sorrows and anger found in the lives of many women.....I
love this book. It has mattered in my life in a big
way that few books matter in a reader's life. I have
read it three times now and I will read it again and
again, because each reading brings something new and
thought-provoking, something disturbing and energizing;
each time I find something else to admire in its intricate
construction, its precise use of language. It speaks
the truth with crystalline clarity."
- The Times
- Picayune (US)
'Unless' is a signal word, curious,
a warning and a sign. As this is a signal novel, profound
and resonant, written with the virtuosity and understated
brilliance that is distinctive to Carol Shields. Quite
simply, Unless is a masterpiece. Brava! Brava!"
- The Ottawa
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