Excerpt from Unless by Carol Shields, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Carol Shields

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  • First Published:
    May 2002, 224 pages
    May 2003, 336 pages

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   8. Eros: Essays, by Danielle Westerman, translation by Reta Winters, hastily translated--everything was hasty in those days, everything still is--and published in 1995. Hugely successful, after a tiny advance. We put the dog in a kennel, and Tom and I and the girls took the first translation payment and went to France for a month, southern Burgundy, a village called La Roche-Vineuse, where Danielle had grown up, halfway between Cluny and Mâcon, red-tiled roofs set in the midst of rolling vineyards, incandescent air. Our rental house was built around a cobbled courtyard full of ancient roses and hydrangeas. "How old is this house?" we asked the neighbours, who invited us in for an aperitif. "Very old" was all we got. The stone walls were two feet thick. The three girls took tennis lessons at l'école d'été. Tom went hacking for trilobites, happy under the French sun, and I sat in a wicker chair in the flower-filled courtyard, shorts and halter and bare feet, a floppy straw hat on my head, reading novels day after day, and thinking: I want to write a novel. About something happening. About characters moving against a "there." That was what I really wanted to do.

   Looking back, I can scarcely believe in such innocence. I didn't think about our girls growing older and leaving home and falling away from us. Norah had been a good, docile baby and then she became a good, obedient little girl. Now, at nineteen, she's so brimming with goodness that she sits on a Toronto street corner, which has its own textual archaeology, though Norah probably doesn't know about that. She sits beneath the lamppost where the poet Ed Lewinski hanged himself in 1955 and where Margherita Tolles burst out of the subway exit into the sunshine of her adopted country and decided to write a great play. Norah sits cross-legged with a begging bowl in her lap and asks nothing of the world. Nine-tenths of what she gathers she distributes at the end of the day to other street people. She wears a cardboard sign on her chest: a single word printed in black marker--goodness.

   I don't know what that word really means, though words are my business. The Old English word wearth, I discovered the other day on the Internet, means outcast; the other English word, its twin, its cancellation, is worth--we know what that means and know to distrust it. It is the word wearth that Norah has swallowed. This is the place she's claimed, a whole world constructed on stillness. An easy stance, says the condemning, grieving mother, easy to find and maintain, given enough practice. A sharper focus could be achieved by tossing in an astringent fluid, a peppery sauce, irony, rebellion, tattoos and pierced tongue and spiked purple hair, but no. Norah embodies invisibility and goodness, or at least she is on the path--so she said in our last conversation, which was eight weeks ago, the eleventh of April. She wore torn jeans that day and a rough plaid shawl that was almost certainly a car blanket. Her long pale hair was matted. She refused to look us in the eye, but she did blink in acknowledgement--I'm sure of it--when I handed her a sack of cheese sandwiches and Tom dropped a roll of twenty-dollar bills in her lap. Then she spoke, in her own voice, but emptied of connection. She could not come home. She was on the path to goodness. At that moment I, her mother, was more absent from myself than she; I felt that. She was steadfast. She could not be diverted. She could not "be" with us.

   How did this part of the narrative happen? We know it didn't rise out of the ordinary plot lines of a life story. An intelligent and beautiful girl from a loving family grows up in Orangetown, Ontario, her mother's a writer, her father's a doctor, and then she goes off the track. There's nothing natural about her efflorescence of goodness. It's abrupt and brutal. It's killing us. What will really kill us, though, is the day we don't find her sitting on her chosen square of pavement.

Copyright Carol Shields 2002. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Harper Collins. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher

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