Review: Unless – Carol Shields

I’ve attempted to write four beginning sentences to this post and each time I end up hitting backspace, because I don’t even know where to begin when explaining the brilliance behind Carol Shield’s novel “Unless”. As I closed the book, I sat there for a few moments thinking that I had just read an intensely written book that made me think outside the box, which is always a plus.

In a nutshell, Shield’s “Unless” is the story about Reta Winter and her daughter Norah, who drops out of school and makes a permanent home out of the corner of Bathurst and Bloor wearing a sign around her neck that reads the word, “GOODNESS”. Left to decipher why her daughter would do such a thing, Reta is forced to examine her life, her writing (she is an author) and the world as a whole.

Reta Winter, a 44 year old woman lives in Orangeville, Ontario with her common law partner Tom and her three daughters Norah, Christine and Natalie. The family begins to unravel in some ways when they learn about the whereabouts of Norah, but in other ways they seem to come together in unison to individually encourage Norah to come home and stop searching for whatever it is she seeks. The core of the novel is focused on Reta trying to figure out what the sign “GOODNESS” could mean. Reta is consumed by the safety and well being of her daughter. Every time she starts to have a good time (at a party) she is reminded of the sinking feeling that her daughter is sitting on a cold corner for some unknown reason.

In a way to try and distract her thoughts of Norah, Reta throws herself into her writing. She explains early on her literary accomplishments, but is currently focusing on writing a sequel to her first novel, My Thyme is Up. Her newest novel Thyme in Bloom is classified as a “light” novel, basically something you could read on the beach. It seems slightly ironic that Reta is dedicating herself to a novel that is light and frothy as opposed to writing about her current situation involving her daughter. Reta in a way comes off as an author that isn’t willing to “go there”; she shies away from topics that hit too close to home thus failing to really connect with her readers.

 She also fails to assert herself with the people around her, backing down to her new editor that rudely interrupts her on more than one occasion. Her inability to stand up for herself makes you think that she is scared of the world around her. Reta begins to think that Norah is able to see her inability to stand up to other’s, to speak up for herself and thus she begins to write countless letters to male journalists/ authors exclaiming her anger towards their conscious effort to leave important females out of their text. She always mentions in each letter what she is going through with Norah and blames these men (in a way) for not exposing great women that deserve the right to be mentioned, ultimately failing to connect with young women and not showing these girls that women have voices that deserve to be heard. In true Reta form though, none of the letters are mailed and they sit in a drawer being unread and her voice goes unnoticed. 

The end result about why and what happens to Norah will leave you understanding her motives all along and also leave you to think that Carol Shields was a talent like none other. She did have the ability to go there and put herself out there so that her readers can see her exactly what she’s trying to convey with a sense of vulnerability and realness. This was a great book to kick of 2011 and I hope the rest of the literature I read this year is just as breathtaking.

 Carol Shield’s book “Unless” is currently in the running for CBC Canada Reads competition that will be taking place on February 7th, 8th and 9th.

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5 thoughts on “Review: Unless – Carol Shields

  1. Kathleen says:

    Anytime a book has you struggling to explain it’s brilliance I know it is a great read. I’ll be adding this one to my list. I’ve yet to read anything by Shields and have meant to for the longest time.

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