History: This is the last book written by Carol Shields before she died in 2003, published in 2002.
Plot: The novel is narrated in first person by 44-year old writer and translator, Reta Winters. The book proceeds as a linear series of reflections by Reta, elliptically coming to the thematic center of the story: the seemingly arbitrary decision of Reta's college-aged daughter Norah to drop out of university and live on the street with a cardboard sign affixed to her chest that reads "Goodness".
Norah sleeps each night and has meals each day in the Promise Hostel, a safe, well-kept shelter for the homeless. Her street corner is highly trafficked and efficiently patrolled.
Norah's two sisters, Natalie and Chris, visit her every Saturday afternoon, bringing gifts and necessities. Though Norah refuses to speak, Tom, her father, makes the trip down every Friday morning to sit silently beside her in a folding aluminum chair. Reta regularly drives by the intersection.
Although the novel does not in any way proceed like a mystery, the reasons for Norah's departure from the normal world are Reta's primary motivation in writing. In parallel, her relationship with her French mentor, Danielle Westerman (a Holocaust survivor and poet) drives much of her narration and view of herself.
We follow Reta as she visits the local Orangetown Library, populated by duo librarians, Tessa and Cheryl. We accompany Reta to her Tuesday morning coffees with her three close friends, Annette, Sally and Lynn. We travel with Reta on a disastrous, but hilarious East Coast book publicity tour where three customers show up for a signing at one Washington, D.C. bookstore, none at another. We see her do battle with a brash young, nitwit editor from New York who wants to completely alter her novel in progress, making the female heroine a man. (Reta is a strong feminist, and this emerges throughout.)
The striving-to-be-earnest editor arrives at Reta's home just as the family is leaving to visit Norah who has been hospitalized for pneumonia. The editor is left with Louise, Reta's 86-year-old mother-in-law.
The novel deals extensively with the role of women and in particular, women's literature. Late in the novel, Reta starts to break from herself and write in character as a disenfranchised female writer. The underlying theme is that the lives of women are underwritten, ignored, and dealt with as "trivial" by the literary establishment. Reta's grief over her daughter's state makes her very inwardly focused on the process of writing. A reflection of this is shown in the title of the book and the chapter titles. "Unless" and the chapter titles ("therefore", "else", "instead") are all words that are used to couch the fragmented manner in which life fits together.
In the end, Norah was admitted to the hospital for pneumonia. They noticed that her hands had been burnt severely, apparently happening several months ago. Looking at news clippings, they put together this history. A muslim woman had set herself on fire on that same block, Norah had witnessed this and had tried to put the flames out with her hands. This is what caused her to go to the street and beg. She recovers at her parents house, Reta finishes her book, and things get back to normal.
Review: Shields is writing about a writer who often shares with the reader thoughts about her writing. And, because Shields, herself, is such a fine writer, the feeling is one of a rare and privileged look behind the scenes at a simple, yet sophisticated theatrical production. (Summer theater in the Berkshires comes to mind, or perhaps, with a nod to Canada, plays staged at the Stratford or Shaw Festivals.)
It's also about a mother's anguish, her concerted attempts to make some kind of sense of it all, and the fracturing effect on a whole family as they try to cope, groping towards each other for comfort yet often retreating into numbing distraction.
Its narrator, Reta Winters, is a bundle of contradictions: a loving but somewhat controlling mother who is both angry and afraid, desperate to force some order into this chaos, yet sensitive enough to search deeply for underlying reasons. This woman cannot and will not rest until she has figured out why a bright girl like Norah, her whole future ahead of her, would renounce the world in a bizarre kind of passive penance.
Though Unless is in large part about Reta's barely tolerable psychic pain, it begins so mildly that we are hardly prepared for the novel's central crisis. Where is the howl of anguish? Ah, but the anguish is there; it's just that Reta has an abiding need to hold it at arm's length. How does she do this? With words, words, those powerful weapons that both express and obscure the truth.
Unless is deeply grounded in the writing life, so much so that one of Reta's first tasks is to neatly and numerically list her accomplishments in the literary field. She has done quite a bit: translated the works of a distinguished French feminist named Danielle Westerman, written acclaimed short stories for presses with names like Pink Onion, even published a modest hit, a "light" novel called My Thyme Is Up, leading to the inevitable call for a sequel which she will call Thyme In Bloom.
If chanting all these accomplishments is supposed to act as an incantation against horror and despair, it doesn't work. Again and again Reta compulsively drives by the street corner where a mute, glazed-looking Norah hunches, collecting her alms from strangers:
In fact, the tension between safety and risk (Reta's cozy, inviting home as counterpoint to the merciless danger of the street) forms one of the underlying bulwarks of Unless. This theme works its way deep into the story (not to mention Reta's psyche) like yeast through a loaf.
Ironies abound in Reta's narrative. Well-meaning friends who have no idea of Reta's inferno of impotent rage counsel her to count her many blessings. She has two other teenaged daughters, after all, both bright and delightful; and then there is her nice husband Tom, a perfectly respectable doctor with a little hobby. (Never mind that his study of trilobites can be completely obsessive; doesn't this just prove that Reta and Tom are a good match?)
There are other contradictions. Though she translates the works of an outspoken feminist, in so doing she chooses a respectable, yet subordinate role. She writes a clever, "safe" little novel that does modestly well and does not begin to touch on her volcanic rage; in fact, writing the sequel provides a timely distraction from all she is going through. (So much for "Write what you know.") And yet, alarmingly, she rages against the enduring social restrictions that relegate women to the realms of mere goodness (that word again), while shutting them out of greatness.
Not only that Reta firmly believes, or has convinced herself, that this repressive system has somehow cracked her daughter's sanity, causing her to give up on a full life and retreat into passivity. Though being in touch with herself is not Reta's strong suit, here she comes uncomfortably close to an awful truth. Norah did not have to look to the unfair world for her discouragement; all she had to do was look at her mother. Reta's central tragedy is not the loss of her daughter, but her inability or unwillingness to reach for true greatness by taking the kind of bold, uncomfortable risks real artists must take.
Complicated stuff, but because this is Carol Shields, there is never a false step or a wrong note. And Reta does have ample grounds for her complaints. She writes a series of letters that crackle with righteous anger to pompous male literary pundits who barely seem aware that the human race has two genders (though in true Reta fashion, she never mails them). She has encounters, some of them frankly hilarious, with self-important (male!) stuffed shirts who believe they have the inherent right to be arbiters of literature, all the while revealing their meanness with every gesture.
But just when we're sure we know the novel's main thesis (women are oppressed by the patriarchy!), Shields cannily throws in a female character, Gwen Reidman, who is even more insufferably self-important than all those arrogant males Reta rages against. Worst of all, she doesn't even seem to see it. Gwen was in charge of Reta's old writers' group, but now she has taken to wearing turbans and calling herself Gwendolyn (and the connection to the poet Gwendolyn MacEwan is not coincidental).
Shields is light-years ahead of Reta in her perception and ends the novel with the sort of twist that reveals even more ambiguity and paradox.
The best novelists don't solve or resolve anything, but force us to sit with the contradictions. It isn't an easy or comfortable task, and Unless is far from a cozy read.
Opening Line: "It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now."
Closing Line: “It is after midnight, late in the month of March.”
Quotes: Unless is the worry word of the English language. It flies like a moth around the ear, you hardly hear it, and yet everything depends on its breathy presence. ... Unless you're lucky, unless you're healthy, fertile, unless you're loved and fed, unless you're clear about your sexual direction, unless you're offered what others are offered, you go down in the darkness, down to despair.
"There is a bounteous feast going on, with music and richness and arabesques of language, but she has not been invited. ... How can she go on living her life knowing what she knows, that women are excluded from greatness, and most of the bloody time they choose to be excluded?"