Dressing Up for the Carnival


240 pages
ISBN 0-679-31021-5
DDC C813'.54




Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is the editor of the Canadian Book Review Annual.


“Reportage,” one of 22 stories in Carol Shields’s latest
collection, includes among its characters “a woman with a decidedly
philosophic turn of mind, but whose speech is braced by an unflinching
attachment to the quotidian.”

The same could be said of Shields herself. A persistent theme in this
collection is the ability of the quotidian to deflect despair. A number
of stories feature objects that have the power to induce in their
possessors fleeting moments of heightened awareness—moments often
accompanied by a “dream of transformation.” In the title story, a
man, after contemplating the physical properties of a mango he has just
bought, imagines that “the shrivelled fate he sometimes sees for
himself can be postponed if only he puts his mind to it.” In
“Scarf,” the act of purchasing a silk scarf from a Georgetown
boutique leaves a woman with a feeling of “intoxicating power.”

Not only objects but language itself serves as a conduit to momentary
transcendence. In “Soup du Jour,” the word “celery,” uttered by
a boy en route to a grocery, is transformed “into a brilliantly
coloured balloon that swims and rises and overcomes the tiny confines of
the ordinary everyday world to which, until this moment, he has been
condemned”; in the same story, a woman memorizes French verbs “in an
attempt to give meaning to her life.”

Some stories are steeped in the fantastical. In “Windows,” the
government imposes a window tax on citizens, a conceit Shields uses to
explore the creative process. Other stories examine, and mildly
satirize, the academic world and in particular the challenges that
confront biographers. The elusiveness of the biographical subject is
deftly treated in “Edith-Ester,” in which a novelist rejects her
biographer’s attempts to impose meaning on her life and work.

One of the characters in “A Scarf” believes that successful fiction
must have “a beginning, a middle, and an end.” If you do not share
that belief, then these whimsical, decidedly nonlinear tales will
probably appeal.


Shields, Carol., “Dressing Up for the Carnival,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 16, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/8413.