I began reading Carol Shields’ books many years ago, with The Box Garden. In that novel there’s a passage that made me laugh so hard I thought I would do myself an injury. It’s the chapter describing a mother with scant taste but a lot of energy, who spends her time like a down-market and rather crazed Martha Stewart, relentlessly decorating her modest house—papering and re-papering its walls, hand-painting its lampshades, dyeing its scatter rugs—much to the alarm of her adolescent daughter, who never knows what new, ferocious colour the house will be when she gets home from school.
This, I thought, was not only terrific satire, but fine comedy as well. Yet when I recently read the passage again, it no longer struck me as all that funny. Now, years later, and with several demented decorating episodes of my own behind me, I find it poignant, even faintly tragic. The mother is defeated by her house, in the end. She abandons her doomed attempts to make it into a work of art. She recognizes the futility of her efforts. Time claims her. She sinks down. She gives up.
This ability to strike two such different chords at once is not only high art, it’s also the essence of Carol Shields’ writing—the iridescent, often hilarious surfaces of things, but also their ominous depths. The shimmering pleasure boat, all sails set, skimming giddily across the River Styx.
Carol Shields died on July 16, 2003, at her home in Victoria, British Columbia, after a long battle with cancer. She was sixty-eight. The enormous media coverage given to her and the sadness expressed by her many readers paid tribute to the high esteem in which she was held in her own country, but her death made the news all around the world.
Conscious as she was of the vagaries of fame and the element of chance in any fortune, she would have viewed that with a certain irony, but she would also have found it deeply pleasing. She knew about the darkness, but, both as an author and as a person, she held on to the light. “She was just a luminous person, and that would be important and persist even if she hadn’t written anything,” said her friend and fellow author Alice Munro.
Earlier in her writing career, some critics mistook this quality of light in her for lightness, light-mindedness, on the general principle that comedy—a form that turns on misunderstanding and confusion, but ends in reconciliation, of however tenuous a kind—is less serious than tragedy, and that the personal life is of lesser importance than the public one. Carol Shields knew better. Human life is a mass of statistics only for statisticians: the rest of us live in a world of individuals, and most of them are not prominent. Their joys, however, are fully joyful, and their griefs are real. It was the extraordinariness of ordinary people that was Shields’ forte. She gave her material the full benefit of her large intelligence, her powers of observation, her humane wit, and her wide reading. Her books are delightful, in the original sense of the word: they are full of delights.
She understood the life of the obscure and the overlooked partly because she had lived it: her work reveals a deep sympathy with the plight of the woman novelist toiling incognito, appreciated only by an immediate circle but longing for her due. Born in 1935 in the United States, Shields was at the tail end of the postwar generation of North American college-educated women who were convinced by the mores of their time that their destiny was to get married and have five children. This Carol did; she remained a devoted mother and a constant wife throughout her life. Her husband Don was a civil engineer; they moved to Canada, beginning with Toronto in the ’60s, a time of poetic ferment in that city. Carol, who was already writing then, and attended some readings, said of that time, “I knew no writers.” Undoubtedly she felt relegated to that nebulous category, “just a housewife,” like Daisy in The Stone Diaries and like Mary Swann, the eponymous poet who is murdered by her husband when her talent begins to show.
After obtaining an M.A. at the University of Ottawa, Shields taught for years at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, where she began publishing in the ’70s. But this was the decade of rampant feminism, in the arts at least. Her early books, including Others, Intersect, Small Ceremonies, and The Box Garden, which examined the vagaries of domestic life without torpedoing it, did not make a large stir, although some of their early readers found them both highly accomplished and hilarious. She had her first literary breakthrough—not in terms of quality of writing, but in terms of audience size—in Britain rather than in North America, with her 1992 novel The Republic of Love.
Her glory book was The Stone Diaries, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the Canadian Governor General’s Award and then, in 1995, the Pulitzer Prize, a feat her dual citizenship made possible. Her next novel, Larry’s Party, won the Orange Prize in 1998. To say that she was not thrilled by success would be to do her an injustice. She knew what it was worth. She’d waited a long time for it. She wore her newfound prominence with graciousness and used it with largesse.
Unless, her last novel, was written in the small space of time she spent in England and France, after beating cancer the first time and before it came back. It’s a hymn to the provisional: the sense of happiness and security as temporary and fragile is stronger than ever. Those who had heard Carol Shields interviewed earlier were probably surprised by a frankly feminist strain in the novel—particularly the angry letters her protagonist, writer Reta Winters, addressed to male pundits dismissive of woman writers—because in conversation she was discreet and allusive. The little frown, the shake of the head, said it all. Possibly feminism was something she worked into, as she published more widely and came up against more commentators who thought excellent pastry was a facile creation compared with raw meat on skewers, and who in any case could not recognize the thread of blood in her work, though it was always there. The problem of the luminous is that its very luminosity obscures the shadows it depends on for its brilliance.
Unless was published in 2002; although it was short-listed for just about every major English-language prize, the Munro Doctrine, informally named after Alice Munro, had set in by then—after a certain number of prizes you are shot into the stratosphere, where you circulate in radiant mists, far beyond the ken of juries.
I last saw Carol Shields at the end of April 2003. Her new house was spacious, filled with light; outside the windows the tulips in her much-loved garden were in bloom. Typically for her, she claimed she couldn’t quite believe she deserved to live in such a big and beautiful house. She felt so lucky, she said.
Although she was very ill, she didn’t seem it. She was as alert, as interested in books of all kinds, and as curious as ever. She’d recently been reading nonfiction works on biology, she told me: something new for her, a new source of amazement and wonder. We did not speak of her illness. She preferred to be treated as a person who was living, not one who was dying.
And live she did, and live she does; for, as John Keats remarked, every writer has two souls, an earthly one and one that lives on in the world of writing as a voice in the writing itself. It’s this voice—astute, compassionate, observant, and deeply human—that will continue to speak to her readers everywhere. For who is better at delineating happiness, especially the sudden, unlooked-for, unearned kind of happiness, than Carol Shields? It’s easier to kill than to give birth, easier to destroy than to create, and easier for a writer to describe gloom than to evoke joy. Carol Shields can do both supremely well, but it’s her descriptions of joy that leave you open-mouthed. The world may be a soap bubble hovering over a void, but look, what astonishing colours it has, and isn’t it amazing that such a thing exists at all?
Such a world—various, ordinary, shimmering, evanescent but miraculous—is a gift; and it’s the vision of this gift that Carol Shields has presented us with in her extraordinary books. We give thanks for it—and for her.