This section contains 1,812 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Review by Gail Pool
SOURCE: "Imagination's Invisible Ink," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XI, No. 8, May, 1994, p. 20.
In the following review of Happenstance and The Stone Diaries, Pool argues that while similar in nature and focus, the latter is more complex.
You would expect that good books from a country as close to us (in every sense) as Canada would quickly find American covers. Apparently not. It has taken more than a decade for the first US edition of Carol Shields' Happenstance to appear, and I suspect we might not have it even now if her latest work, The Stone Diaries, had not been short-listed for last year's Booker Prize. Whatever their literary merit, awards are good promotion even for finalists, encouraging publishers to furnish early and out-of-print work. In Shields' case this is all to the good, and I hope we will soon see her earlier novels, Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden. Her work should be read in its entirety, that entirety hangs together so well.
Shields staked out her fictional territory early in her novel-writing life, and has explored it inventively ever since. Her realm of interest is the chronicling of lives, our efforts to find stories that give them shape and meaning. Underlying her own chronicling of people chronicling lives is the point that no one ever really knows enough. Shields' characters may be professional biographers or ordinary folk trying to make sense of their lives; all confront a picture that is inevitably incomplete. Beyond the mysteries of life (the role of fate or choice), we each have a particular perspective that determines what we see and miss, an individual framework that leads to readings that are sometimes comically, sometimes poignantly wrong. Nor do we readily enter other perspectives: in Shields' world, people misconstrue each other regularly, even if—perhaps especially if—they sleep together nightly.
With her eye on perspective, Shields plays nicely with viewpoints, shifting not only within books but even between them. In Small Ceremonies, the central character is biographer Judith Gill; in The Box Garden, the protagonist is Judith's sister. The setup offers great potential to enrich both books, but Shields uses it only modestly here, as if trying it out.
In her next two novels, though, she works this construction ingeniously. Happenstance, which first appeared in 1980, follows historian Jack Bowman's life over five days when his wife Brenda, a quiltmaker, is away at a handicrafts exhibit; A Fairly Conventional Woman, published in 1982, examines the same five days, focusing on Brenda. Together the novels create a vital portrait of a marriage. As the subtitle of this new edition suggests, it is a marriage "in transition." Fittingly, in this volume, the two stories are bound together but open from opposite sides of the book, each upside down to the other.
Jack's story takes place in Chicago, where Shields, now a Winnipeg resident, was born and raised. The Bowmans' suburb is comfortable, a word that applies equally well to Jack. At 43, he has a secure, unpressured research position. Married twenty years, he has two healthy if adolescent children. He meets his good friend Bernie Koltz weekly to discuss such topics as entropy or the death of God. As he sees it, he owes his good fortune to "happenstance," which has "made him into a man without serious impairment or unspeakable losses."
But during Brenda's absence, comfort disappears amidst a slew of comically depicted disasters: Bernie turns up, announcing his wife has left him; a neighbor, an amateur actor, is trashed in a review and attempts suicide; Jack's son has stopped eating; in the background, housekeeping degenerates, the kitchen overflows with gnawed bones, dirty glasses, wadded-up napkins.
Worst of all, Jack confronts a crisis. He learns that a book on the same subject as the one he is writing will soon appear; he may have to drop his project. If truth be told, it would be a relief. Only on chapter six after three years, he can barely face the boring text. "I'm a man who has lost his faith," he says dramatically, posing a bit for this crisis much as he has posed at writing his book.
A philosophizing fellow, Jack has trouble grounding himself in everyday reality. By contrast, there is nowhere else that Brenda lives. So we realize as, during her five days at the conference, she remembers her unmarried mother and unmissed father, and reflects on her years as a housewife and her recent quilting success.
For Brenda, these are heady days. A woman who hasn't traveled alone, she calls room service for the first time in her life. She wins honorable mention for her quilt, is interviewed by a reporter, meets feminists at the conference, is shaken to find her hotel room-mate having sex, gets horribly drunk and sick, meets a man for whom she feels an affinity. Not everything is wonderful, but everything is new.
Shrewdly depicting the same moments as seen by each spouse, Shields reveals different visions of the past as well as different views of the present. In Jack's story, the comedy depends partly on Brenda's forthcoming, continuing presence, which he never doubts. In Brenda's, though her love for Jack is clear, we find her reflecting on her anger, wondering if it means her life has been a mistake. Ruminating guiltily about taking over the guest room for her work, she realizes she deserves it: she is more serious about her work than Jack is about his. This, in view of their history, seems to me the most startling realization of all, one that Jack has yet to come to, though it lies just ahead.
Shields is expert at combining satire and sympathy. Alongside the gaps in Jack and Brenda's comprehension of each other lies the substance of all they share. Canny and unsentimental, this double chronicle captures not just this couple but men's and women's lives and marriages in our time.
If Happenstance is ingeniously constructed, it is nonetheless straightforward compared to The Stone Diaries, an intricate novel and complex commentary on living and telling lives. Simply described, it is the autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett, from her birth in Tyndall, Manitoba, in 1905, to her death in Florida in the nineties. It is very much a woman's story.
Starting with her birth and advancing approximately by decades, Daisy describes how her mother Mercy Stone died when she herself was born; how a neighbor, Clarentine Flett, cared for her and, in the midst of change of life, changed her life, abandoning her husband, Magnus, and taking Daisy to her son Barker in Winnipeg; how at Clarentine's death, Daisy's father, a stone worker, took her to Bloomington, Indiana, where he flourished in business; how she married a handsome alcoholic who fell out a window on their honeymoon; how, feeling swamped by her "tragic" story as orphan and widow, she went to Canada at 31, to visit—and marry—Barker Flett; how she lived as housewife and mother for twenty years, thrived in widowhood writing a gardening column, fell into depression when she was fired; how she moved to Florida and made a comfortable life. The final chapters, unsparing and grimly funny, chronicle her decline and death.
Throughout, Daisy generally refers to herself in the third person, perhaps because she has stationed herself as an observer, perhaps because she feels an absence in herself, an absence of self. Her detailed chronicle includes stories and descriptions alongside commentary about life, men and women, autobiography in general and the one she is writing.
Shields plays intriguingly here with invention and truth. The novel has not only a family tree, easily conceived of as pure invention, but also family photographs, which are sure to give a reader pause: pictures of whom? Daisy's narrative constantly raises the question of veracity. She cannot know what happened at her birth or past her death, though she relates both. And all her wonderful stories—including the ones about events she could never have witnessed.
Consider one of my favorite tales (unfortunately, condensed here): the laconic Magnus Flett, abandoned by Clarentine, misses her intensely. He doesn't understand why she left. Discovering her stash of novels, he reads them; he especially likes Jane Eyre.
It astonished him, how these books were stuffed full of people. Each one was like a little world, populated and furnished. And the way those book people talked!… Some of the phrases were like poetry, nothing like the way folks really spoke, but nevertheless he pronounced them aloud to himself and committed them to memory, so that if by chance his wife should decide to come home and take up her place once more, he would be ready.
Magnus practices: "O beautiful eyes, O treasured countenance, O fairest of skin."
But Clarentine never comes home. Magnus returns to his homeland, the Orkneys. Years later, Daisy, who never met her father-in-law, visits the Orkneys and discovers he is still alive. At 115, he is famous as the oldest man in the British Isles. But he is still more famous as the man who could recite Jane Eyre by heart.
Now I find this story both moving and hilarious. But what is true here? The "facts" are few. Magnus did, for example, return to the Orkneys. It is interesting to imagine the various routes by which Daisy might have arrived at her tale.
Daisy doesn't hide the fact that her autobiography abounds in distortions and inventions. She warns us often. "The recounting of a life is a cheat," she observes. Daisy, she says,
is not always reliable when it comes to the details of her life; much of what she has to say is speculative, exaggerated, wildly unlikely…. Daisy Goodwill's perspective is off. Furthermore, she imposes the voice of the future on the events of the past, causing all manner of wavy distortion. She takes great jumps in time, leaving out important matters…. Still, hers is the only account there is, written on air, written with imagination's invisible ink.
Daisy knows the power of storytelling: it was by this "primary act of imagination" that she determined to hold onto her life. She is also aware of different perspectives: she records with humor varied explanations of her breakdown, from her new-generation daughter's theory that it was the loss of her job to her friend's assertion that it was sex. And she is aware of her own perspective: her abiding sense of motherlessness and abandonment, the feeling of being "erased from the record of her own existence" (no picture of Daisy appears among her photographs) have influenced the story she tells. So we construct our life stories, the book suggests, seeing or inventing what we need, filling in the picture we cannot truthfully complete.
True or invented, a distinct person emerges from these pages. Her story is a quietly riveting chronicle of an ordinary life, valiant and tedious. If we finish Happenstance feeling "Yes, this is a marriage," we finish The Stone Diaries feeling "Yes, this is a life."
This section contains 1,812 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)