Carol Shields, Narrative Hunger and the Possibilities of Fiction


323 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-8489-3
DDC C813'.54




Edited by Edward Eden and Dee Goertz
Reviewed by Naomi Brun

Naomi Brun is a freelance writer and a book reviewer for The Hamilton


In her writing, Carol Shields championed the ordinary. The pages of her
novels detail the lives of the middle class, where housewives and
secretaries mingle freely with business people and academics. Wives are
often less professionally successful than their husbands, who provide
comfortable but not luxurious lives for their families. In other words,
Shields’s characters are no different than the people who might be
found in a suburban mall on a Saturday afternoon. And while quirky
individuals and extreme actions do make an appearance in her stories,
their presence is rather limited.

Some critics have surmised that an unremarkable cast of characters can
come only from an unremarkable author. Due to this very reason, Shields
has, on occasion, been dismissed as an unworthy member of Canada’s
literary scene. However, the essays in Carol Shields, Narrative Hunger
and the Possibilities of Fiction pay tribute to her brilliance, her
talents, and her accomplishments as she turns the ordinary into the
extraordinary. Her fluency in the symbolism of everyday things lends
depth to the structural framework of the novel, resulting in what
Robertson Davies would have called a happy alchemy.

In her critical essay “A Postmodernism of Resistance in The Stone
Diaries,” Lisa Johnson points out the parallels between domestic
creativity and character development. The protagonist, Daisy Flett,
“inherits her mother’s talent for making art from things of the
earth.” An avid gardener and local expert on the subject, Daisy
restores fertility to a previously arid landscape, and in so doing
“becomes able to perceive her own impact on the world around her.”
Shields herself defends domesticity as an entirely acceptable backdrop
for the novel in her essay “Narrative Hunger and the Overflowing
Cupboard”: “There they sit with their hobbies and their wallpaper
and their cups of filtered coffee, finishing each other’s sentences
and nodding in agreement. … [I]t might be interesting to see novels
look inside their own human packaging and admit that a long
relationship—the union of two souls, the merging of contraries
forever—can be as complex, as potentially dynamic, and as open to
catharsis as the most shattering divorce.”

Shields once wrote about Larry Weller, a floral designer who fell in
love with mazes. He chose commonplace varieties of hedges to create
green labyrinths where people could go to lose themselves. Deceptively
simple in appearance, the mazes were designed to encourage exploration,
and offered a welcome place to rest at the end of the long journey.
Perhaps Shields was not so different from Weller, for she used the stuff
of everyday life to craft literary masterpieces, and in so doing,
satisfied her readers’ insatiable hunger for narrative.


“Carol Shields, Narrative Hunger and the Possibilities of Fiction,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 14, 2024,