Most people want to be happy. But how many have what it takes to be good? Can self-realization and morality share the same space in our lives? Or can we only have one and not the other? These are the questions that underlie Carol Shields's 2002 profoundly moving novel Unless, which explores the "problem of goodness" and how it squares with the very human desire for happiness. The narrator is Reta Winters, a middle-aged writer whose comfortable life is thrown into turmoil when one of her daughters disappears, and subsequently turns up as a panhandler on a Toronto streetcorner.
Unless was published in 2002, and was a finalist for the Giller Prize the same year. It was a contender for Canada Reads 2011, where it was defended by Lorne Cardinal.
It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I've heard people speak of finding themselves in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit and body, but I've never understood what they meant. To lose. To have lost. I believed these visitations of darkness lasted only a few minutes or hours and that these saddened people, in between bouts, were occupied, as we all were, with the useful monotony of happiness. But happiness is not what I thought. Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it's smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.
From Unless by Carol Shields ©2002. Published by Vintage Canada.