unless by Carol Shields (Random House), 320 pages, $35.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Summer vacation is my time to be stupid, and I want my reading to match. Shallow queer novels, formulaic mysteries, nothing too demanding, please. So what was I thinking when I opened up Unless, Carol Shields's heart-stopping story of a woman whose seemingly idyllic life in small-town Ontario unravels when she discovers that her oldest daughter, Norah, is living on the streets of Toronto?
Not that Unless is demanding. This almost slender novel cruises right along. Shields knows exactly what she's doing, dropping tidbits of information at just the right moment, letting some humour peak through the pain.
The narrative arc solves the mystery regarding Norah's sudden retreat to the corner of Bloor and Bathurst, where she sits silently with a sign hanging around her neck that says "Goodness." But by making Reta a novelist with a background as a French-English translator of a well-known French feminist intellectual, Shields slides in other insights about language and how critics assign literary value, and cracks some obviously self-referential jokes about the problems of writing about a writer who's writing about writing.
Shields's intelligence is awesome, and it comes across in effortless prose, the kind that makes you stop to read a phrase aloud and marvel at the author's wondrous skill.
Unless currently sits atop the best-seller list, right where it belongs.