I too am aware of being in incestuous waters, a woman writer who is writing about a woman writer who is writing … We may pretend otherwise, but to many writers this is the richest territory we can imagine… This matters, the remaking of an untenable world through the nib of a pen; it matters so much I can’t stop doing it.
Unless is the last novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Shields, written shortly before her death in 2003, and is often claimed as her most personal. Reta Winters is a writer, living a charmed life of moderate professional success, loving family life and a full and supportive circle of friends. When her eldest daughter decides to abandon her studies, family and friends for life on a street corner, holding up a sign saying only “goodness”, Reta brings her writerly contemplation to bear on the situation and its repercussions on her life.
Told from Reta’s perspective, the story of daughter Norah and her withdrawal from society is a vehicle in which Shields is able to voice her opinions on being a female, particularly a female writer. Incestuous waters indeed. There is a ongoing comment about female literature, how it is compartmentalised and trivialised, Reta often writing imaginary letters to convey her strong opinions on the subject. But what does this have to do with a daughter who does nothing but hold up her sign of “goodness”? The link is of her removal being Norah’s giving over the power in a sense of helplessness does relate to Reta’s musings on the subject, but her role in this story itself is trivialised. The catalyst itself that feels rendered secondary to what feels like what Shields is trying to say rather than what it has evoked in the character of Reta.
This is important stuff, not only to Reta or even to Shields. I did not find out that this was the author’s last book, written so close to her time of death until I had finished the book but there is the feeling that this is something that she really felt needed to be said about her profession and her role as a female writer in it. The feeling of personal really is the correct description for this book. At times I felt that this message of dismissing the power of feminine literature uncomfortable, the message too unflinching. But learning more about Shields has leant a lot of credibility to it as well. She was a noted Jane Austen fan and also wrote a biography before her death. As a Pulitzer Prize winning female author, and a student and fan of one of the most visible female authors ever, these thoughts were obviously something she needed to say before she died, something she had to say on behalf of herself and those female writers who came before and to those who have and will come after.
I almost dismissed this novel as one of a display of great writing but one where the story was lost for the main agenda of its author. I was reading to find out about Norah, what caused her self-exile and what would happen to her eventually. And the reader is given these things albeit as a secondary to the main message. But the message is powerful, so-much-so that this inexperienced part-time blogger feels too inadequate to properly convey. One of the most important things I have read in a long time.
I need to re-read Unless with your review in mind as the first time I read it I too thought that Norah’s story was a sidebar and I couldn’t quite work out what the point of it all was. Great review. Thanks.