Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What I'm Reading Now

From a book review by Jay Parini in The New York Times (March 27, 1994):

CAROL SHIELDS, the American-born Canadian novelist and story writer, is often mentioned in the same breath with Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, and her last novel, "The Republic of Love," attracted a small but enthusiastic band of admirers, myself among them. Last year "The Stone Diaries" was nominated for Britain's Booker Prize and acclaimed by many reviewers there. Now it has been published here, and it deserves our fullest attention.

The novel provides, glancingly, a panorama of 20th-century life in North America. Written in diary format, it traces the life of one seemingly unremarkable woman: Daisy Goodwill Flett, who is born in 1905 and lives into the 1990's. "The Stone Diaries" includes an elaborate family tree of the sort usually found in biographies as well as eight pages of family photographs. Surveying the faces in these photos of Ms. Shields's sharply drawn characters, the reader naturally wonders: are these "real" people or the made-up kind?

The question soon becomes irrelevant: indeed, the novel willfully smudges the already blurred distinctions between fact and fiction. "When we say a thing or an event is real, never mind how suspect it sounds, we honor it," writes one of Ms. Shields's several diarists. "But when a thing is made up -- regardless of how true and just it seems -- we turn up our noses. That's the age we live in. The documentary age."

So the novelist inserts her tongue deeply into her cheek and documents everything. But unlike the historian, who must cling to the enameled outer layer of reality, Ms. Shields plunges into the interior life of her characters with all the ferocity of a major novelist. As her readers, we are allowed to peer into the hearts of Daisy Flett and her family with gaudy indiscretion, and this voyeurism is at times unsettling. Humankind, as T. S. Eliot noted, cannot bear very much reality. . . .

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