Unless (by Carol Sheilds)

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from a novel described on the front cover as 'raw and intentful', with a title like 'Unless'. I've only previously read one book by the late Carol Shields, and thought it interesting and original in style... but didn't feel very involved with the characters.

However I enjoyed this one very much. It's the story of Reta Winters, a writer whose main work is translation from French. She has written one novel and is trying to write a sequel, while dealing with an unusual and upsetting family problem - her bright, loving daughter has dropped out of college and society, and sits on a street corner, begging.

The style of the book is unusual, sometimes using the present tense, sometimes reminiscing about the past, sometimes wondering about the future. It could have been muddling, but it wasn't. It blended well, giving an impression of someone who was confused by current circumstances, but working her way through her difficulties.

Reta seems to be a strong person who's not afraid to ask questions and take responsibility for mistakes she's made. Her attempt to balance her life is moving: continuing with everyday chores, looking after her two younger daughters and sort-of-husband, meeting with friends, writing ... and yet all the time there's the tragic undercurrent of her life, seeing her oldest daughter only once a week, with no idea if she will ever return home again.

There's another thread running through the book: a rather feminist slant, as Reta writes letters to journalists and scholars, pointing out with light irony how sad it is that they so often quote male authors and composers, but rarely - if ever - mention women whose work they have found inspiring. She thinks that part of her daughter's problem is the marginalisation of women, even in a modern society where everyone is supposed to have equal rights.

These letters don't quite fit in with the rest of the book - and yet they provide light release from the ongoing story about her writing and her daughters. They also - as I realised towards the end - give a different kind of insight into Reta's thought processes, and reveal the anger she feels despite her attempt to stay calm and in control.

The only character who is really developed through the book is Reta. This is perhaps inevitable as she's the narrator, so we see inside her head and heart while observing her family and friends from her viewpoint. I didn't find that a problem, since I found Reta very realistic, the writing often reflecting the way my mind works as it jumps around and tries to rationalise problems.

I don't know if it would appeal to someone who likes to think in a structured or step-by-step fashion, but it worked well for me. The other characters were believable, even though I didn't feel I knew any of them well, and there weren't so many that I lost track of who was who.

All in all, I'd recommend it.

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