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Brian Francis ponders Unless

Thumbnail image for carol shields.jpg

At the Canada Reads launch, Carol Shields's daughter, Anne Giardini (who is also a writer), said that she had an interesting story about Unless and if people wanted to ask her about it, she would tell it to them. I didn't approach her afterwards, so I don't know what the story was. But that moment has stuck with me, especially now that I've read the book. I wonder what it was that Anne had to share. Perhaps it was a funny anecdote about her mother. Perhaps some context for Reta Winters, the protagonist of Unless. Or, perhaps, Anne had insights that would've blurred the lines between Carol's real world and the fictional one she created.

I discussed in a previous post how readers sometimes want the "truth" behind a writer's fiction. It may be nothing more than good-natured curiosity, like finding out what the neighbours are up to. But most of the time, I think there's a need to make a deeper connection with the writer, to add a layer of understanding to the fiction, to put things into perspective so that the view of the landscape is extended.

Although I never met Carol Shields, I know a few details about her life: that she enjoyed a long marriage, that she had five children (including four daughters), that she was intelligent, that she was concerned by the way women writers were perceived in the book world. And, the most obvious, that she was a writer.

Shields's life doesn't sound much different from that of her protagonist. For that reason, I read Unless as Shields's book and not as Reta's story. I heard Shields behind every word. Every thought. It was Shields who wrote the angry (and justifiable) letters to those male authors and magazine editors. Shields who pondered the big question of "good" vs. "great." Shields who was articulating her anger at a world that she felt had dismissed her and other women.

The book world has its fair share of strong allegiances. Once readers feel a connection to a writer, it's a bond that's hard to shake. And Shields has legions of loyal readers who admire both her fiction and the woman behind it. I suspect that bond is stronger than ever, especially now that she's gone; that there will be no more new books.

This, maybe, is the saddest part of death — the stopping. It's something we all face. At some point, we'll all "stop." Breathing, worrying, loving, observing. But there's comfort in reminding ourselves of the things that will keep "going" once we stop. Children, loved ones, life. And, for those who write, their books.

And I think this is why I was so strong in my belief that Reta was Carol. Because I read Unless as Shields's final testament. But that wasn't the right way to read it. Shields was a great writer. And while she would've taken inspiration from her own life (as all writers do), she wouldn't have written Unless as directly as that. She was too talented. Too nuanced. Too torn.

In other words, I want to know Shields as a person. But I can't. And yet, I can. And that's the complex legacy of books.

So Shields keeps me guessing. How much of her was in Reta? How much wasn't? What was the story her daughter had to share? And what would it mean to me, as a reader, to hear it?

The bottom line is that none of us will ever know Shields. Not in the truest sense. And not in the way she knew herself. But that doesn't mean we can't connect with her. Feel close to her. See what she saw. Learn what she learned.

That's the gift her absence leaves behind.

Will this book be the champ? For the past five weeks, I've done a round-up of what I think are the strengths for each title competing for the Canada Reads crown. Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts.

Reasons why Unless might take it:

  • An award-winning novel from a well-known author
  • First time Shields has appeared on Canada Reads
  • Legions of supporters
  • Probably the "weightiest" book in the line-up
  • Defended by Lorne Cardinal (having a male defender on this book will challenge the perception that this is a woman's book)

Unless is a heavy hitter — on the other hand, it's also a tough, polarizing book that may face challenges getting support from other panelists.

That's it, folks. Next week the debates start! I'll be participating in the Canada Reads live chat each day, so join me. Caution: Typos very likly.

Brian Francis

Brian Francis is Canada Reads' resident blogger. His debut novel, Fruit, was the runner-up in the Canada Reads 2009 debates. His second novel, The Natural Order, will be published in fall 2011.

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