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.