Sunday, October 30, 2005

'The Stone Diaries' by Carol Shields

As a protagonist, Daisy Goodwill is as ordinary as they come. There is no conventional grandness in her life. All her actions (her entire life, in fact) are governed not by some cosmic plan, but by the mechanisms of daily life that propel us from birth to death. But life itself, its fabric, the way it wraps around us and shows us its plan, is grand. It bestows on every one of us moments, emotions, feelings which take us that much closer to the realization that yes, I exist. This is the imprint of my personal history, the warp and weft of my reality.

As the blurb states, “this is the story of Daisy Goodwill, from her birth on a kitchen floor in Manitoba, Canada, to her death in a Florida nursing home nearly ninety years later.” The reader passes through each of Daisy’s life-phases, arranged in neatly divided sections, titled Birth, Childhood, Love etc.

At 72, Daisy lives in a three-bedroom condo in Florida and passes her days in recollection:

“If you were to ask Victoria’s Great-aunt Daisy the story of her life she would purse her lips for a moment – that ruby-red efflorescence – and stutter out an edited hybrid version, handing it to you somewhat shyly, but without apology, without equivocation that is: this is what happened, she would say from the unreachable recesses of her seventy-two years, and this is what happened next.

It’s hard to say whether she’s comfortable with her blend of distortion and omission, its willfulness, in fact; but she is accustomed to it. And it’s occurred to her that there are millions, billions, of other men and women in the world who wake up early in their separate beds, greedy for the substance of their own lives, but obliged every day to reinvent themselves.”

Shields sprinkles such gems on every other page and her deeply engaging writing style brings you to wish for a cord, a realizable link between all such people – alone, utterly alone, passing their days mimicking life. Something to make them say, “I am not all puff.” Her prose makes you wonder, is this what life is then? Is there something like a true life at all or are we destined to lead our own imitations of it?

Carol Shields was a very gifted writer. (She died of breast cancer in 2003.) There were moments during the book when I was wary of continuing without taking a break, because it had become the book’s habit to induce in me a deep and mildly painful contemplation. I found myself holding it and looking into the distance, having just read a passage, and wishing that the questions it evoked would ease a little and give me a breather.


Anamika said...

I agree Shields is a mighty fine writer. I have been trying to lay my hands on her last novel 'Unless' which is a moving and terrific work. It was one of the books on the booker short list a few years back. Surprisingly couldn’t find it anywhere in delhi, Bombay, goa, Calcutta. Yeah, I have done the gig. Maybe someone can help me 'bout this one.

Christopher Chang-Yen Phillips said...

First of all, thank you for the wonderful review of one of my favourite books. This is exactly what Daisy's story did to me, so... kudos.

Second, anamika, I live in Canada and I can send you a copy of Unless if you still can't find it. You can find my email address on my blog.