In her last novel, Carol Shields changed her tone a little bit, took a more serious direction. Her main character and narrator, Reta Winters, a mother of three, a translator, and a writer, lives a personal crisis, when the eldest of her daughters, Norah, shuts the world out, and sits in a street of Toronto everyday with a sign reading “goodness” around her neck. Reta and Tom, her husband, have no idea about how to deal with the situation, knowing only that they cannot use extreme measures such as kidnapping their own daughter and have her committed, for fear of making things worse. So, taking turns, they and their two other girls go to Toronto several times a week, to make sure that Norah is at least still sitting there, and to bring her food or money, which they are not even sure she uses…

Reta Winters remembers her own career, how she started a translator to famous poet and memoir writer Danielle Westerman, a feminist she admires exceedingly, even though she herself made quite different choices in her life: the choice to put her family first… Reta therefore divides her time between her family, her housewifely tasks, her female friends, and her writing. As the girls grew up, she found she wanted to write a novel and came up with My Thyme Is Up, a light fiction which, to her own surprise, attracted good reviews. When Norah, from one day to the next, stops going to college, dumps her boyfriend and starts living like a homeless person, Reta is in the process of writing the sequel to her novel, featuring two characters from her previous novel, Alicia and Roman.

While Reta is uncertain about the relationship between Alicia and Roman, and questions the whole lives she has given them, their careers and their tastes, the novel, Thyme In Bloom, is taking quite a different turn than the one she had expected. The untimely death of her publisher, Scribano, will bring a new one on the scene, who has many ambitions for Reta’s new novel…

On a deeper level, Reta is of course obsessed by her daughter’s decision, and questions the meaning of the “goodness” sign. She is sure that her daughter’s depression is due to the impossibility for a woman to achieve greatness, and her obligation therefore to be contented with goodness. In a series of (mostly unsent) letters, she addresses different men, who listing or mentioning, or quoting lists of great, influent persons, systematically forgot to name a single woman. But Reta is inventing reasons for Norah’s withdrawal from the world, like she is inventing the characters in her novel and their motivations. Reta’s late feminist rebellion is caused as much by her daughter’s cryptic behavior (for which we have an explanation, in the end) than by her guilt at writing light fiction (probably increased by Danielle Westerman’s slight scorn of such activities).

Unless is a strange novel: Reta, the heroine, is a woman of self-doubts, contradictions and indecision. Although she admits going to a time of “great unhappiness and loss”, she keeps a light and humorous tone throughout the narrative. Instead of confronting her daughter’s pain, she prefers to keep it at bay and to involve herself in her fictional world. And although she is influenced by Danielle Westerman and angry that women are being kept from greatness, she herself refuses to reach for greatness, and prefers the comfortable place of writing light fiction and being the translator to a “great” woman. Her contradictions are also felt in her need to be conventional (taking the name of Tom, raising three kids), but not conventional enough to marry…

About the cryptic title, in an interview with the BookReporter.com, Carol Shields says: “These little words, so often forgotten, connect the big nouns and verbs and give them a sense of time and place. In a funny way, I think I felt sorry for them, how under-appreciated they are” (©2002, Interview with Carol Shields, Bookreporter.com, The Book Report Network, New York, New York). In other words, those little words, these “unless” are like women: forgotten, under-appreciated, but they give a sense of time and place, and connect the members of a family together…

Unless is a strange, complex and very insightful novel…

Rating: 4/5