BOOK LOOK – Carol Shields’ “Unless”

Carol Shields
Random House Canada
321 pages, $35.95
ISBN: 0-679-31179-3

“Unless you’re lucky, unless you’re healthy, fertile, unless you’re loved and fed, unless you’re clear about your direction, unless you’re offered what others are offered, you go down in darkness, down to despair” (p. 224).

Reta Winters finds herself in the unfortunate state of “unless”, when her oldest daughter (Norah) decides to live on the streets of Toronto at the tender age of nineteen. As a concerned mother, Reta retraces the path of Norah’s life through a series of flashbacks, while she continues her career in Orangetown by writing a bestseller (“My Thyme Is Up”), based on the events surrounding Norah’s disappearance.

Growing up, Norah is seen in Reta’s eyes as a well-behaved child, who had a lot of potential. Yet, Reta wonders why Norah would leave her family, friends and academic pursuits to lead a troubled life.

On the street corner of Bloor and Bathurst, Norah is found dressed in torn and ratted clothing simply holding a sign written in black magic marker on cardboard, with the word: “Goodness.” During the day, Norah begs for change, while at night she is taken in by a local shelter. Concerned family and friends also pray and make frequent trips to Norah’s street corner, hoping she will return back to her home soon.

Several months pass and Norah continues to live on the street during the long and cold winter months. Reta begins to give up hope of Norah ever returning home. Nevertheless, she deals with her loss of Norah by finishing her novel in time for publication.

Just when Reta is about to give up on Norah, events in “Unless” slowly take a turn for the better. Ironically, Reta and the rest of the family find Norah’s intentions for “Goodness” during one cold and winter night. The real reasons behind Norah’s disappearance are known, as Norah makes a healthy recovery from her illness.

Overall, Shields shows her best work in what appears to be her tenth and final book. In this heart-wrenching novel she conveys many words and emotions to readers, which effectively reveal a mother’s everlasting love for her daughter. For example, for the title of each chapter, she uses transitional words and phrases like “Here’s”, “Already” and “Not Yet”, to describe the chain of events surrounding the plot of the novel. In addition, by using the city of Toronto, a “darker side” of the city is revealed, making readers aware of an ongoing problem in dire need of attention.

Despite being more a fan of Carol Shields’ previous work, I would recommend “Unless” for everyone to read. In particular, I would especially like to recommend this book to mothers and daughters, who would benefit from a book dealing with this important life relationship. I give it four and a half bookmarks out of five. A truly fantastic literary work, indeed!