Tuesday, February 1, 2011 |
Unless was published in 2002 when my mother, Carol Shields, was in the final stages of breast cancer. As the story of a daughter lost to her mother, Unless is a mirror of my experience — a daughter who has lost a deeply loved mother.
When she wrote the novel, my mother was in the last stages of an aggressive form of breast cancer. She told an interviewer that her "ambush" by illness is reflected in the anguish that Reta is feeling at the loss of a child. "I had to think hard about how I could transform my astonishment and grief, since I didn't want to write a breast cancer book," she said. Instead she wrote about another elemental fear, the fear of the loss of or distance from a beloved child.
"I got this book off on the wrong foot, writing about breast cancer because I had all this information. But it was just making me sad," she told another interviewer. "I had to pick the book apart with jeweller's tweezers — which always breaks your heart a bit. But now it feels like I'm soaring."
Reta Winters, the narrator of Unless, has many reasons to be happy. She has three daughters who are approaching independence. She has a loving relationship with their father. She has found satisfying work as a translator and author. In the spring of her 44th year, however, her "pane" of happiness is smashed. Her eldest daughter Norah has run away, and turns up begging on a Toronto street corner, with a hand-lettered sign reading GOODNESS around her neck. Norah is mute. She refuses to speak about what has happened to her. The only indicator of Norah's state of mind is the single word "goodness."
As Reta strives to unravel the mystery of what has happened to her daughter, she leads the reader to consider closely what it is the world means by goodness.
One of the sources underlying Unless is the story of Demeter and her daughter Kore, one of the most famous narratives in Greek mythology. Kore was seized by her uncle, Hades, king of the dead, and taken to live in the underworld. Demeter, goddess of the Earth, wandered the world, searching for her lost daughter. The natural rhythms of Earth were blasted by Demeter's sorrow. Winter reigned perpetually, and the spring could not come. The people could not grow crops and begged the gods to help them. Zeus intervened and sent Hermes to rescue Kore. Before she left, however, Hades tricked her into eating a handful of pomegranate seeds. Anyone who ate or drank in the underworld was doomed to stay there forever. Zeus's intervention forced a compromise. Demeter's wish is half-granted. Her daughter will spend half the year — summer and spring — with her on Earth but for the other six months of fall and winter Kore is locked in the underworld.
Unless is a deeply feminist book. One of the truths that have undone Norah, and that also inspire a dispute between Reta and her editor, is the fact that the world reserves greatness for men. In life and in literature, women are allowed to be good but not great.
For Reta, as for Demeter, "the world is split in two," although for different reasons. In Unless, the world is described as being divided "between those who are handed power at birth, at gestation, encoded with a seemingly random chromosome determinate that says yes for ever and ever, and those like Norah, like Danielle Westerman, like my mother, like my mother-in-law, like me, like all of us who fall into the uncoded otherness in which the power to assert ourselves and claim our lives has been displaced by a compulsion to shut down our bodies and seal our mouths and be as nothing against the fireworks and streaking stars and blinding light of the Big Bang."
The epigraph that my mother chose for Unless reads: "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heartbeat and we should die of that roar that lies on the other side of that silence." In Unless Norah goes on a journey to the other side of silence, and Reta, like Demeter, is called to heroism, in fact to greatness. Each of the two mothers sets out to solve her daughter's dilemma. They are rewarded but only partially. Their daughters remain captive to narratives that were not of their own making.
Unless continues to resonate with any reader who believes that each of us has a story of our own. It also reminds us that it is important to be at the centre of our own stories and not to be willingly subsumed or silenced.
My mother died on July 16, 2003.