323 pages
ISBN 0-679-31179-3
DDC C813'.54




Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

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


Reta Winters has it all: a happy marriage, three teenage daughters, a
thriving career as a writer and translator, a rich social life. Then,
abruptly and without explanation, her eldest daughter, Norah, takes up
begging on a Toronto street corner. On her chest is a cardboard sign
with the handwritten word “goodness.” That cryptic message is the
starting point of Reta’s attempt to solve the mystery of her
daughter’s unwelcome transformation. Eventually, she finds her answer
in gender politics: Norah’s “project of self-extinction,” she
concludes, stems from the fact that women continue to be “dismissed
and excluded from the most primary of entitlements.”

Reta expounds on her theory in unmailed letters addressed to authors
who have ignored, dismissed, or patronized women writers: “I think you
have … overlooked those who are routinely overlooked, that is to say
half the world’s population”; “Women writers, you say, are the
miniaturists of fiction, the embroiderers of fine ‘feeling.’ Rather
than taking a broad canvas of society as Don DeLillo does …”
There’s a strong undercurrent of rage in Reta’s letters, but Shields
pre-empts charges of feminist overkill by having her self-doubting
heroine wonder, “So who is this madwoman, constructing a tottering
fantasy of female exclusion and pinning it on her daughter?” The
explanation for Norah’s withdrawal—which confirms Reta’s theory in
a thematic, if not technical, sense—is withheld until the novel’s
final pages.

Far more compelling than the family crisis (Norah, like the sign she
wears, remains an abstraction throughout) is Reta’s response to the
crisis: her routine of “dodging sadness” by means of novel writing
and bouts of housework; her poignant contribution to the graffiti in a
women’s washroom; her astonishment at the persistence of the mundane
in the face of catastrophe (“My daughter is living like a vagabond on
the streets of Toronto, but even so I had to have four yards of screened
bark mulch delivered to the house this morning, $141.91, including
haulage”). The witty and sagacious Reta is the perfect narrator for an
exquisitely written novel that finds Shields at the height of her
stylistic powers.


Shields, Carol., “Unless,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 22, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/9180.