Monday, May 30, 2011

Review: Unless

Carol Shields’ Unless is a story about hope, determination, and perseverance. The crisis of the novel is a mother telling the story of her daughter, who one day decides to leave home and live on the streets of Toronto, without a word of explanation or reason. Reta and her family are left to piece together the clues as best they can, and hope that one day they will get their daughter and sister back.

Reta is the narrator of the story, and, as a writer herself, conscious of what she reveals and what she doesn’t. As the story progresses, however, the reader sees more about Reta than perhaps she intended initially; she becomes more and more willing to accept blame and finds fault with her own tendencies until she becomes much too hard on herself. As readers, the sympathy felt for Reta is a work of genius by Shields. Reta’s daughter, too, is an enigma as we learn about her through her mother’s eyes. And the more we learn about the events that lead to her decision to leave home and live on the streets of Toronto completely cut off from her previous life, the more we see that Norah really is her mother’s daughter.

Of the Canada Reads 2011 nominees, Unless is, in my opinion, the most well-written - Shields’ superior skill is without question. The story is contentious, however, and there is an argument that the denouement is not quite the sum of its parts. But Unless is a journey of waiting and watching more than anything, which means that the eventual outcome does not need to be bigger than anything that came before. And I enjoyed it immensely.

Though the book did not win the coveted Canada Reads title, it is still a book that Canadians should read - not only for the message of goodness and hope that, I think, most Canadians inherently possess, but also because Carol Shields is one of our most gifted writers and teaches us about the English language through her writing.

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