The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Unless By Carole Shields, Fourth Estate, Rs 517

Themes of loss and grief usually permeate the writings of women, even in those spread so far in place as Sashi Deshpande and Carole Shields.

Madhu, the protagonist of Deshpande’s novel, Small Remedies, comes to terms with the grief at the death of her son, and also discovers new meanings in love, life and even marriage, while researching the life of the famous classical singer, Savitribai Indorekar “Bai”.

Shields’s 2002 Booker nominated novel, Unless, is in the same vein. It is a first person narrative about a woman dealing with loss, and the helpless anger it arouses. “It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now”, the novel begins, starkly. Reta Winters is a novelist. She has already published one novel, My Thyme is Up, and is at work on its sequel, besides translating the memoirs of Danielle Westerman, “poet, essayist, feminist survivor, holder of 27 honourary degrees”. Reta’s novels are sunny, they can be read sitting on a wicker chair “with the sun falling on pages as faintly and evenly as human breath”. The sequel, Thyme in Bloom, will, she hopes, be as light and summery.

Reta has never had any reason to feel anger. She lives in a large house in a small town an hour’s drive from Toronto, is happily married to Tom, a doctor, and has three teenage daughters. But her life alters forever when Norah, her eldest daughter, drops out of university, preferring to sit on the pavement wearing a string around her neck bearing the word “Goodness”.

Reta goes to see Norah, tries to help her, but any attempt to speak to her, even touch her, are rebuffed. Friends offer conflicting advice — let Norah be, have her arrested, treat this as a behavioural aberration — none of which really helps. Sadness, which was never real to Reta, suddenly seems frighteningly near. “Happiness”, she comes to realize, “is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head.”

Lacking answers, and under the influence of Danielle Westerman, Reta vents her helplessness in a series of letters addressed (but not posted) to men who do not recognize women’s achievements. As Reta describes it — “The world is split in two between those who are handed power at birth, at gestation, encoded with a seemingly random chromosome determinate that says yes for ever and ever, and those like Norah, like Danielle Westerman, like my mother, like my mother-in-law, like me, like all of us who fall into the uncoded female otherness in which the power to assert ourselves and claim our lives has been displaced by a compulsion to shut down our bodies and seal our mouths and be as nothing against the fireworks and streaking stars and blinding light of the Big Bang.”

For Reta, Norah’s “withdrawal” means that the unjust world that “howls and writhes” and which she fears, exists. Only at the very end, when some long-neglected burns on Norah’s hands become infected, does it become clear how much this “howling world” had been the cause of her collapse. Unless ends not with easy answers but with the promise of healing.

All too often women writers have been dismissed as being all too concerned with the petty affairs of the heart, the hopes and satisfaction of everyday life. In Unless, Shields attempts to answer such critics. As she probes the inner life of a writer writing about another writer (Alicia, the protagonist of Reta’s novel, is also a fashion writer), Shields is delving into the nature of her own art. “This matters,” as Reta says, “the making of untenable worlds through the nib of a pen; it matters so much I can’t stop doing it.”

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