Through The Pages: ‘Just domestic women’s writing’? | #Unless #CarolShields

The first book I’ve chosen to talk about in my first ‘Through The Pages’ post is: Unless, by Carol Shields. Just looking at this well thumbed, loved, pretty bedraggled copy takes me right back to being a teenager, studying for my A-levels and thinking about what I wanted to study at university.

I didn’t choose to pick up this book – it just sort of found me. Although, that makes it sound like luck, whereas it all started with one fantastic teacher at sixth form. This teacher, putting aside a list of more traditional books the examining body had suggested we study for our coursework, chose instead this novel by a female writer, about a female writer in her 40s. I remember thinking at the time that it was quite a brave choice – none of us teenagers had heard of it and it didn’t carry the same canonised, literary weight of others she might have chosen. Wasn’t it just a book by a woman about ordinary lives? Just domestic women’s writing. Strangely, other than this decision, and her first name, I can’t remember anything else about this teacher now. That decision she made, however, has stayed with me and impacted me greatly.

Since it has been a while since I last read Unless, I’ll include the blurb here rather than trying to cobble together a summary for you:

Reta Winters has a loving family, good friends, and growing success as a writer of light fiction. Then her eldest daughter suddenly withdraws from the world, abandoning university to sit on a street corner, wearing a sign that reads only ‘goodness’. As Reta seeks the causes of her daughter’s retreat, her enquiry turns into an unflinching, often very funny meditation on society and where we find meaning and hope. Unless is a dazzling and daring novel from the undisputed master of extraordinary fictions about so-called ordinary lives.

Unless, Carol Shields (Harper Perennial 2005)

Unless is a quietly powerful book, full of raw emotion (Shields wrote it while she was suffering from breast cancer), which ignited in me a love for things I look out for now in fiction. It explores both the immense power of words, as well as their limitations – the moments where silence takes over and the gulf is flooded with our emotions and unspoken words. It introduced me to novels that provide a conscious and deliberate commentary on how we construct narratives, whether we can ever tell a story that’s ‘real’, and a whole host of other meta-fictional black holes (which went on to became an obsession of mine for quite some time…). Most importantly, I think, it spoke to me about women – both in terms of the female characters who navigate their deeply connected but increasingly troubled relationship as mother and daughter, and also what it means to be a female writer, particularly one writing about domestic, family, everyday affairs.

Having fallen hook, line, and sinker for this novel, it definitely was a big part in inspiring me to go on to study literature at university. As well as beginning my journey to university, the writing of Carol Shields also very much shaped my learning there. It turned out that my path was a circular one, but one which stopped off at different points along the way. The things I absorbed during my course made me appreciate the book and Carol Shields even more – learning about post-modernist ways of playing with narrative and language, discovering a long tradition of ‘women’s fiction’, and appreciating the huge talent it takes to write good short stories. At the end of my course I ended up writing my dissertation on Carol Shields, specifically Unless and Shields’ short stories.

Looking back, I can really trace this teacher’s influence on me, my love of reading and studying literature. It was a quiet and simple influence, centred around just one decision, but I am hugely grateful. Her deliberate choice to introduce us to something new has really made her an influential female presence in my life.

For those who want to discover more about this wonderful author – this interview in the New York Times is very touching.

If you’re interested in reading more about Unless this review essay by Blake Morrison from 2002 is wonderful.

Or you could of course buy a copy and discover it for yourself!

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