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Shields, Carol

family woman canada life

(US, 1935–2003)

Carol Shields lived in Canada from 1957 until her death. Her work looks mainly at the lives of women, and reveals them in fascinating detail. Two early novels tell of one weekend in the life of a married couple, first from the husband's point of view and then from the wife's. These appeared together as Happenstance (1991) and readers can begin the book at either end. The husband is left to look after home and children while his wife is at a quilting conference, and he sees what a woman's daily existence is like from the inside. The Stone Diaries (1993), the fictional biography of an ordinary woman, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and broke new ground by including family photographs in the text, thus making the point Shields made often: that every individual is extraordinary. The art of writing about other lives is also at the heart of Mary Swann (1990), which satirizes the phenomenon of literary fame. Larry's Party (1996) won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 1997 and examines the life of a man who designs mazes. The novel is skilfully structured and takes the maze as a guiding metaphor. The Republic of Love (1992) is about the possibility of happiness, not through wealth or glory, but through a shared humanity. Shields's short stories in volumes such as Various Miracles (1989) look closely at small incidents with the loving attention to detail, quiet humour, and love of language and what it can achieve, that are characteristic of this author. She chose words with the elegance and precision of a poet.

Her emotionally-charged last novel, Unless (2002) takes the story of a young woman rejecting her family in favour of a begging bowl on the street, to meditate upon family and ways in which women are still less visible (powerful) than men.

Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Jane Smiley. See CANADA, SHORT STORIES  AG/JR

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