The Republic of Love by Carol Shields – an elegant book of a community linked in subtle ways.

The Republic of Love by Carol Shields

Love in various kinds is the theme of this well written book of life for two people, their friends and family, in the surprisingly interlinked city of Winnipeg. Fay is a folklorist, an expert on the stories that make up lives, with an interest bordering on obsession on mermaids. Tom is a late night radio presenter who lives alone, a sparse life of few possessions and confused ambitions. Something is missing in their lives; Fay is in a passionless relationship with a man whom she likes, but cannot feel more for, whereas Tom has three marriages and three divorces behind him, three women whose defects were not redeemed for him by love. There are those that they do feel affection for, an interest in, but they know all too well the feeling of empty evenings, or mornings, of empty apartments and houses unfilled by another person. Shields’ voice, her writing is patient and kind as she pictures these two people, their habits, their families and friends, including the strange and unexplained oddities of life that change things. Sudden events, surprising announcements and realisations throw things slightly adrift, as Fay and Tom live parallel lives of small decisions and resolutions. There are no great dramas, mysteries or acts of violence, just lives nearly intersecting, nearly overlapping, as people discover the slightly unreasonable nature of love. I found it a moving, undramatic book full of pictures of life in the late twentieth century, an understated classic of elegant writing unpretentiously displayed. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this fine book. 

Tom is at first depicted as the baby with twenty – seven mothers. His birth mother was ill, physically and mentally, so Tom became the practice baby for the Department of Home Economics in a University. Fay has been in a relationship with Peter for three years, one thousand days, and she realises that she does not love him. Not that he has been unfaithful, or even unreasonable. At thirty five, she realises that she cannot find any love for him, but is not sure that she can live without him, his physical presence, in her life. There have been other men before him, and she hopes that there will be others after him, but at the moment she wants more, something different. After all, her parents, perfectly reasonable people, have been married for thirty nine years. Tom maintains an austere life in the apartment that he has found himself in after three joint lives. Full of insecurities, he knows that his radio programme which issues forth in the small hours is the haunt of insomniacs, often with strange ideas, frequently lonely people. He attends meetings of the Newly Single Club, not because he is newly single, or desperate to meet a woman for a brief relationship, but to fill the empty hours of a Friday night, as opposed to the emptiness of a Saturday morning which he fills with running. He is not short of friends who include him in social occasions, he is a well- trained bringer of gifts to family lunches. He wants more, but he struggles to recognise what that more might look like. Fay has her mermaids, the mythical theme of tales and stories on the edge of human existence, and the feminine form which is least linked to motherhood.

This is a gentle book which shows the links between people which survive tensions and separations, confusions and circumstances. In a city there should be masses of people who are unknown, and sometimes the links are tenuous, accidental, more coincidental than intentional. When significant people do meet it can be important, life changing and have a great impact on other people, but it will not be a huge drama. This is a book of people considering their choices, their wants, and the meaning of that elusive emotion, love.             

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields – a new edition of a classic achievement

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

The story of a woman’s life – that takes in nearly all of the challenging twentieth century- with all its contradictions and events, is the basis of this wonderful, rich novel. Recently reprinted in World Editions, this edition features an affectionate foreword by Margaret Atwood who offers real insight into Shields’ life. This is seemingly a story of an “ordinary woman” from her birth in 1905 into a rural world, through various locations, to a very changed end of century. Though fictional, this book has the range and sincerity of reality, especially in the small events and contradictions of a life which is far from straightforward. Many of the people in the book act in surprising ways, very much like real people, refusing to be categorised or pigeon holed. This book emerges as an acknowledgement that ‘ordinary’ people are rarely, if ever, predictable, and it is in that assertion that lies one of this book’s main strengths. It also provides amazing descriptions of flowers and the stones which provide themes for the novel. Its achievements include the way the story is presented, as straight narrative, focusing on various characters in their turn, a series of letters and other documents which convey various small stories which contribute to the story as well as conveying various character traits, a return to narrative before reactions to an event. This is a book which achieves so much and deserves all the praise it has achieved since its original publication in 1993. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this amazing book. 

The book begins with the picture of a young woman making a pudding for her husband. A domestic scene which speaks of the simple nature of the woman, a young man who loves her, and an older woman who is beginning to see her as a surrogate daughter. When a tragedy occurs, people reevaluate what they want from life, as they variously react to a baby girl with a hastily chosen name. The upbringing of Daisy Goodwill does not take place where she was born, but starts new relationships and allows strange things to happen. At the point when she is reclaimed, there is movement, a new start which diverts her life and affects other people. A strange event when she is a young woman, a curious chance tragedy leaves her in an ambiguous place, lost and somewhat lonely. When an unpredictable relationship happens, rather than emerges, it gives Daisy a whole new identity, set of expectations and much more. 

This is a book which is completely centred on people in all their glorious variety. Anchored in the stone which is a name as well as a constituent part of the story, it is a permanent object used by one of the characters to make his mark, develop its beauty, exploit its possibilities. The scene changes from Canada to urban America, even venturing to a very specific part of Britain, always seen in the light of flowers and remarkable lives and achievements. This is a powerful book, which alternately is intense, tragic, light, funny and eager to encapsulate the sense of people’s thoughts and rituals. This book is a superb achievement which captures so much of the sense of a life in private reflections which are not often revealed in fiction. When a family tree is added, as well as a clutch of photographs representing characters, this is a book which conveys so much becomes a memorable story of an ordinary, yet remarkable, woman.